News Column

New Hazlett Theater's 'Parade' has history, message and tradition

August 21, 2014

By Alice T. Carter, The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Aug. 21--The ghost of Leo Frank has been haunting Benjamin Shaw since he was a teenager.

Shaw first learned about Frank when he saw "Parade" in 1998, soon after it debuted on Broadway at Lincoln Center in a production directed by Harold Prince.

"It was my first experience seeing theater with a story history, message and tradition," says Shaw, a Squirrel Hill native now based in New York City.

Shaw is finally fulfilling his ambition to stage the musical with Front Porch Theatricals production of "Parade," which will begin Aug. 21 at the New Hazlett Theater on the North Side.

The musical is based on the true story of a man tried, convicted and lynched for a murder he almost certainly did not commit. It's set in 1913 Georgia where Frank, a Jew is accused of murdering Mary Phagan, a 13-year-old girl whose body is discovered in the basement of the pencil factory where she and Frank worked.

Lies, rumors, politics and newspaper bias lead to Frank's conviction and murder by an angry mob.

"The voices that speak the loudest, and are often the most extreme, sway the conversation," Shaw says. "He was Jewish, a Northerner and a convenient scapegoat. It's about the power of mob mentality and the parts of (each person's) self that exist and co-exist."

The production also looks at the relationship between Leo and his wife, Lucille, who sought justice for her husband. As the play progresses, their love develops as they experience tragedy, ignorance and rage.

"It's a love story. But what I like about it is it's not your typical musical-theater love story," Shaw says. "It's about two people who are already married who grow up to find each other."

Despite winning Tony Awards for best book and best score, the musical closed after only 124 performances. Some might recall seeing the national tour that played as part of Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera's season in 2000.

In 2007, the show was given a new life at the Donmar Warehouse in London in a streamlined production directed by Point Park University graduate Rob Ashford.

That revised, more intimate production made adjustments to the script, reduced the orchestra from 13 musicians to six and used ensemble casting for many of the smaller parts -- townspeople, factory workers, jurors, policemen and reporters.

"The ensemble is not simply perpetrators. They are individuals and a community with a history," Shaw says. "If you say they are the enemy, we've missed the point of the story."

In 2009, Ashford restaged the Donmar production for arena staging in a production at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles. It's that revised version that Porch Theatricals is staging.

"It asks you to be really smart about the storytelling," Shaw says. "It now captures if not the literal truth, the emotional truth."

Front Porch co-producers Bruce E.G. Smith and Leon Zionts founded Front Porch Theatricals in 2007 as a company that focuses on works that make a statement and explore and confront cultural and social issues of importance.

"We feel very strongly about this production and the important story it tells," Zionts says.

Leading the cast are four Equity actors: New York-based actor Jesse Manocherian, Squirrel Hill resident Daina Michelle Griffith, Sean Lenart and Joe Jackson.

Zionts says the company also is pleased to be fulfilling its mission to mentor young artists and involve them in professional productions. The company hired 14 college and high-school students as interns to help with facets of the production.

The cast includes four students from Carnegie Mellon University and one from Point Park University.

"It's a great feeling to give someone their first professional paycheck," Zionts says.

Alice T. Carter is the theater critic for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7808, or via Twitter @ATCarter_Trib.


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