Something wondrous is in progress at Houston’s Masquerade Theatre. Regular readers of this column may recall reviews of previous Masquerade production gems such as the delightful “Annie” of this past holiday season, or the hilarious “Ruthless” that preceded it. Now the theater’s Houston premiere of Broadway’s Tony Award winning musical, “Parade,” has skyrocketed this small, but increasingly popular company into the artistic stratosphere. Company founder and Artistic Director, Phillip Duggins, has assembled a near flawless cast with great vocal power for this stunning revival.
Set in an Atlanta, Georgia of the early 1900’s, the story is full of residual bigotry stemming from the Civil War a half century before. The tale is based on the real-life story of Jewish businessman, Leo Frank, who was put on trial for the murder of a young girl that worked in his factory. From the passionate opening number, “The Old Red Hills of Home,” (with fine solo work from Luther Chakurian and Chad Knesek) we are on a musical journey that is both rich and melodic. The music and lyrics are by Jason Robert Brown, with a book by Alfred Uhry. Andrew Dixon conducts a fine, four-piece band that plays from above the stage. The cast’s large choral ensemble performs brilliantly throughout the show. The simple and effective split-level set (Designer, Amy Ross) was enriched by the authentic period costumes of Designers, Kayleen Clements & Janette Arsement.
In the role of Leo Frank, Ilich Guardiola opens with a poignant “How Can I Call This Home?” that reveals Frank’s longing for the familiar Brooklyn of his youth. The equally thrilling chorus complements Guardiola’s powerful voice. Then we meet the adorable and flirtatious couple, Mary Phagan (Katherine Randolph) and Frankie Epps (Mr. Chakurian). Their fine singing is followed by wonderful counterpoint as Leo and his wife, Lucille, (lovely Kaytha Coker) sing “What Am I Waiting For?” There is more vocal excellence as newsman, Britt Craig, (Michael J. Ross) sings “Big News!”
And there is big news when Mary is found dead in the factory basement. Chakurian breaks our hearts when he sings “It Don’t Make Sense” over her coffin. Local politicians and police zero in on the Jewish Mr. Frank as prime suspect. Governor Slaton (Bill O’Rourke) and his wife Sally (Bethany Daniels) provide some pleasant duets and comic relief. For those unfamiliar with the history of the case, I will not reveal the ultimate outcome. Not every word in the complicated choral arrangements is discernable; but I will say that the superb ensemble singing in the funeral and courtroom scenes is not to be missed. There is a kind of witch-hunt frenzy, and occasional frozen tableaus add to the tension. Speaking of the courtroom, there hasn’t been this much suspense since “To Kill A Mockingbird.” It is particularly powerful in this small house (fewer than a hundred seats), where the audience has the very real sense that it is part of the jury. The small theater also gives the audience a chance to hear exceptional singers without the distortions of microphones and amplification. Ms. Ross designed a very effective on-stage jail for the prisoner. Her work is enhanced by Mr. Duggin’s fine lighting designs, well executed by Marie Fulcher (light board) and Damie Oliver (spotlights).
Lucille tells the court “You Don’t Know This Man” in a touching, melodic, and almost operatic defense of her husband. Ms. Coker beautifully performs the song. Terry Jones is a sleazy delight as the ruthless prosecutor, Hugh Dorsey. His “Twenty Miles From Marietta” offers a commanding performance. Led by Iola (Catherine Nguyen), a group of young girls give false testimony amid the hysteria. I found myself wondering if such episodes might be spin-offs of the current scandals that have rocked the Catholic Church.
Portraying two black young men associated with the case, Omari Tau Williams and De Undre C. James both give strong performances. They are knockouts in the show’s dance high point, “A Rumblin’ and a Rollin’” (Choreography by Joshua Ryan who joins the dance along with Afton Battle). Rebekah Dahl portrays Mary’s mother and beautifully performs the touching, “My Child Will Forgive Me.”
When Leo takes the stand, his gentle testimony, “If I Could Speak My Heart,” is a startling contrast to the whirlwind of hate that surrounds him. Russell Freeman is the unpredictable defense attorney, Luther Rosser, and Mr. Knesek plays Judge Roan. In the riveting and frightening, “Where Will You Stand When the Flood Comes?” Mr. Jones and Mr. Ryan lead a now fiendish ensemble that is bathed in an evil red-orange glow. It is a terrifying moment that reminds us of the dangers of mob rule. Leo and Lucille then calm us with the touching love duet, “All The Wasted Time.” A rousing Finale is one last proof of the cast’s exceptional choral power. Director Duggins has a theatrical masterpiece on his hands!
The Masquerade Theatre is located at 1537 N. Shepherd in the Heights. (Moments from the Durham/N. Shepherd exit of loop 610) Beer, wine and snacks are available at performances. “Parade” runs Thursdays through Mondays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3p.m. from March 27th – April 13th. For reservations call 713-861-7045.
(The Courier 3.24.01)