Sunday, January 09, 2011

It Takes A Village - Parade - Musical Review

Parade - Berkeley Street Theatre Upstairs - Toronto, ON - **1/2 (out of 5 stars)
Music & Lyrics by Jason Robert Brown, Book by Alfred Uhry, Directed by Joel Greenberg

Two esteemed Toronto Theatre companies have joined forces to present Jason Robert Brown's difficult and complex musical about a difficult and complex and dark subject matter. With some of the best in Toronto's theatre community involved in this highly anticipated Canadian premiere (that first appeared on Broadway with Canadian lead Brent Carver), it is a particularly frustrating experience watching this very sophisticated and emotionally wrenching show presented in such a bland manner. Whether it be miscasting, the simple community-theatre feel, the lack of a proper deserving budget, or most particularly, a lack of a directional sense, Parade doesn't quite make the grand entrance into Toronto it deserves.

Michael Therriault (Tin Pan Alley Rag, Peter Pan, Lord of the Rings Musical) is nicely cast as Leo Frank, the transported Brooklyn Jew who lives in Atlanta where his Southern-Jewish wife Lucille (Tracy Michailidis, The Light in the Piazza). When a 13 year old girl named Mary Phagan (Jessica Greenberg, who looked like she could play Mary's mother) is found dead, an ambitious lawyer Hugh Dorsey (Mark McGrinder, Stuff Happens), an angry suitor Frankie Epps (Jeff Irving, The Sound of Music) and an opportunistic reporter Britt Craig (Jay Turvey, Shaw Festival) gather the anger of the locals and turn them into a vengeful mob.

It's a very dark piece based on a famous case in American history, but the brilliancy in Parade is that it is laid out to be presented with subtlety on the case (with varying degrees of doubt on Leo's actual innocence in the first act), while letting theatrics make the show strangely entertaining, using the fact that it is a musical on such a dark subject be the exact satyrical commentary to add zest and additional human emotion into a history tale. Director Joel Greenberg (who did a great job with Stuff Happens) eliminates any of this, and treats Parade as a simplistic tale with very little nuance, which thus gives very little emotional depth to the proceedings. It all feels like one very long history lesson, and if Rob Ashford's Donmar Warehouse production is any indication, it doesn't need to be, and instead can become an entertaining theatrical experience with both high hilarity and crushing sadness (and some great dancing to boot).

There are some grave miscastings in the cast, with a few singing voices that are incredibly grating, and other performances incredibly weak or annoying, and while one can admire a tight theatre community that casts their well qualified friends and family, sometimes what is defined in a role is still a stretch for an actor, and when there are numerous cast members in one show that fail in that manner, it can collectively derail the show. Joel Greenberg has unfortunately let that happen here.

On the bright side, the young Jeff Irving strikes up a perfect balance between fresh young Southern boy and rage filled vengeance, and his voice fills the room well.

Darren A. Herbert (Toxic Avenger: The Musical, Glengarry Glen Ross) sounds tremendous and plays the "poor innocent Black Man" to a sly creepiness that adds layers the rest of the show lacks. His duet partner Alana Hibbert sounds just as divine as the accusatory housekeeper Minnie, and her presence has such a glow.

Newcomer Jordy Rolfe has the beautiful look and beautiful voice that would have automatically given Mary Phagan an innocence and empathy that deepens the story, but alas, is here as Iola Stover (who, granted, probably has more songs than the Mary Phagan role). Her cohorts Sarite Harris and Paige Robson-Cramer sound lovely together.

Mark Uhre, George Masswohl and Gabrielle Jones do what they can with their smaller moments. On the other hand, Jay Turvey has been given two parts (as Governor Staton and reporter Britt Craig) yet played it as one. Turvey though at least redeems himself in certain scenes and songs (though his "Big News" totally misses the point, but I believe that was a directing decision), where Mark McGrinder (usually a reliable actor) fails to create any true dramatic tension as a major nemesis in Hugh Dorsey.

Alas, Parade needs to be given big fanfare to let its true colours show, but here, Joel Greenberg has give it such a muted presence, even the set looked bored. With over-lighting in many of the scenes on a pasty bland set that evoked nothing of the south, Greenberg has failed to throw a proper parade for Parade.

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