Theatre review: Vigorous cast makes tough story memorable in 'Parade'

For the News-DemocratSeptember 10, 2013 

Even from a distance, bigotry is ugly. But up close, a 1913 case of an astonishing miscarriage of justice is deeply disturbing.

With powerful words and heart-wrenching lyrics, the musical "Parade" details the wrongful conviction and lynching of Leo Frank, a Jewish pencil factory superintendent from New York, for the murder of 13-year-old factory worker Mary Phagan in Atlanta.

R-S Theatrics, a professional theater company that presents only premieres, is the first to stage this emotional powder keg in St. Louis. An impassioned cast gives their all in such a way that they lay their souls bare. Anchored by two exceptional leads, Ben Winfrey and Jennifer Theby-Quinn as the Yankee murder suspect and his devoted wife, "Parade" is a haunting experience marked by robust performances and even stronger vocals.

This pair painstakingly build their characters with remarkable finesse, revealing vulnerability and subtle layers of growth. Leo, the fish-out-of-water Brooklynite, is an outsider and doesn't even try to make the best of it. At first, Lucille is a typical Southern wife but gradually becomes a fierce and tenacious advocate for her husband. You feel them fall in deeper in love as they endure a living hell.

They touch the audience with their riveting performances, and their tender renditions of Tony-winning composer Jason Robert Brown's complex musical numbers. Their delicate harmony in the love duet "All the Wasted Time" is a highlight, and their hope in "This Is Not Over Yet" is contagious. Winfrey's "It's Hard to Speak My Heart" and Theby-Quinn's "You Don't Know This Man" are poignant and memorable long after the show ends.

Making his mark as Jim Conley, the ex-con factory janitor and star witness whose perjury damages Frank's innocence, is Marshall Jennings of East St. Louis, an Althoff and McKendree University graduate. His rich, velvet voice is displayed well in the commanding "Blues: Feel the Rain," leaving no doubt that he was the probable murderer as historians believe, and a potent "That's What He Said."

Veteran stage actor Ken Haller has the showboating role of ruthless prosecutor Hugh Dorsey, a corrupt politician and eventual governor of Georgia. He convincingly maneuvers people as pawns in this stunning anti-Semitic case, fueling the mob mentality with great fervor. He riles folks up as the devious villain, demonstrating his sturdy voice in "Something Ain't Right" and "Twenty Miles from Marietta."

The subject matter makes this show difficult to watch, but the performers are so compelling that you focus on their resolve. Shawn Bowers showcases his dynamic voice as Newt Lee, a night watchman who is a suspect at first. Kay Love has dual roles, effective as both the grief-stricken mother (a gut-wrenching "My Child Wil Forgive Me") and as the governor's wife Sally. And Bradley Behrmann is superb as the unethical journalist that fans the flames of unsavory public opinion -- "Real Big News."

The ensemble satisfactorily conveys the necessary dark human behavior, not easy to conjure up, portraying proud Southerners still smarting 50 years after the Civil War. Christina Rios assuredly directed the piece, using a stark stage to focus on this actual atrocity, with the small interaction scenes more affecting than the clumsier scenes involving the entire ensemble. The pace is steady, and the material, while tough, is presented confidently.

Leah Luciano's musical direction is solid, capably handling Brown's challenging score. Brown won the Tony in 1999 for the music, his first Broadway show, and playwright Alfred Uhry ("The Last Night of Ballyhoo") won for best book. They skillfully unfolded this tragic and shameful piece of American history by pointing out that the yellow journalism of the time distorted the facts, the politicians wielded influence for their own personal gain, and the people, whipped into a frenzy by these misguided authority figures, set this horrible course into action.

Thought-provoking, indeed. It is the vigor of this troupe, dedicated to telling this sad story, that you will remember.

What: "Parade," a musical

When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 7 p.m. Sunday.

Tickets: $25 general admission; $20 for students and older adults; and $15 for educators.

Where: The Ivory Theatre, 7620 Michigan Ave., St. Louis

Special Offer: At 8 p.m. Thursday for Starving Artist Brush Up Night, pay what you can and watch the pick-up rehearsal.

Information: www.r-stheatrics.com, 314-456-0071

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