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Trials and tribulations

Ford’s takes chance on daring musical ‘Parade’

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‘Parade’
Through Oct. 30
Ford’s Theatre
511 1oth Street, NW
$15-$75
fords.org

From left, Erin Driscoll, Bligh Voth and Carolyn Agan as the young factory girls and Stephen F. Schmidt as Governor Slayton in the Ford’s Theatre production of the musical drama ‘Parade,’ directed by Stephen Rayne. (Photo by T. Charles Erickson; courtesy Ford’s Theatre)

Not all musicals end happily. Case in point: “Parade.” Based on the real life trial and lynching of Leo Frank in early 20th century Atlanta, the Tony Award winner (currently playing at Ford’s Theatre) is some depressing stuff.

Yes, Jason Robert Brown’s gorgeous score softens the grim facts and when sung by the talented actors gathered for this respectable production, the show remains a sad story, but one that’s beautifully told.

It’s 1913 and the bloody body of 13-year-old Mary Phagan (Lauren Williams) is found in the basement of Atlanta’s National Pencil factory on Confederate Memorial Day. Following a mishandled investigation, Frank (Euan Morton), a young Brooklyn Jew who has moved south to marry nice Jewish girl Lucille (Jenny Fellner) and run the factory, is arrested for the murder of his young employee.

Atlanta’s citizenry is out for blood. A lingering resentment of Northerners (it’s just 50 years since the Civil War) combined with a heavy dose of anti-Semitism are the prefect recipe for injustice. One by one, the coached and coerced give damning testimony in a mostly sung-through trial sequence whose high point is the sensational “That’s What He Said” in which slippery witness James Conley (Kevin McAllister) backed by the ensemble set the stage for Frank’s railroading.

Fellner sings a heartrending rendition of “You Don’t Know This Man,” Lucille’s balladic defense of her husband. Similarly, Morton as Leo (an uptight adding machine so unfamiliar with southern ways) begins to open up with “It’s Hard to Speak My Heart.” But despite the couple’s best efforts, their foes — ambitious prosecuting attorney Hugh Dorsey (James Konicek) and rabble-rousing publisher Tom Watson played by a mustachioed Will Gartshore (local gay actor whose glorious tenor was also heard in “Parade” when it opened on Broadway in 1998, but in a different part) — aren’t listening.

Morton, the versatile Scottish actor who became well known for playing Boy George in Broadway’s musical “Taboo,” is terrific. His Leo is at turns nebbishy, brusque, slightly superior, but in the end loving. Unfortunately neither Brown’s score nor the show’s book by Alfred Uhry (who also wrote “Driving Miss Daisy,” another peek into Atlanta’s Jewish community) provides an opportunity for Leo to reveal his fear and anguish.

The heart of the story is Leo and Lucille’s changing marriage. What starts out as a loveless seemingly arranged union forges into a respectful partnership as the pair work to secure Leo’s freedom and ultimately blossoms into full blown romance. Jailhouse visits are breezy. Lucille sets out her finicky husband’s home cooked favorites while Leo busily works on his appeal. If only for a short time, they behave like a happily married couple despite the macabre circumstance.

Conducted by Steven Landau, Brown’s soaring score references military marches, spirituals and waltzes. There are sad ballads and grave melodies aplenty, but a few tunes encourage toe tapping too. It’s those along with choreographer Karma Camp’s cake-walking moves that remind us of the circus like good time surrounding Leo’s trial and lynching. They were big entertainment, the hottest tickets in town.

Sure-handedly staged by Stephen Rayne, the production moves at a good clip. Set designer Tony Cisek imagines the newly industrialized Atlanta as two tiers of red brick arches that serve variously as factory, courthouse, jail, governor’s mansion and the Frank home. Two towering columns – each in unchecked stages of decay — stand as fading remnants of a prouder, more glorious South. And Wade Laboissonniere’s many period costumes are spot on and superbly rendered.

There’s a lingering sadness to Ford’s “Parade.” Long after the actors have taken their bows, we’re haunted by the ghosts of little Mary Phagan, Leo Frank, his wife and the people of Atlanta. Neither they nor the tragic events are easily forgotten.

 

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Out & About

MCBC honors veterans with free COVID testing

Event sponsored by African American Health Program, National Center for Children and Families

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Montgomery County Black Communities hosts “Veterans Celebration!” at Montgomery College (Rockville Campus) on Saturday May 22 at 10 a.m. The event, associated with the catchphrase “Don’t Stress. Take the Test,” will salute veterans by providing free on-site COVID-19 testing, bags of food, COVID-19 swag, and on-site vaccine pre-registration. This event is sponsored by organizations such as the African American Health Program and the National Center for Children and Families. For more information visit AAHPcovid.com.

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Health

NAMI in conversation about managing mental health

Guided discussion and Q&A with a panel of experts

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The National Alliance on Mental Illness hosts the fourth edition of “NAMI Ask the Expert Help Not Handcuffs,” a webinar dedicated to addressing mental health crises with effective community responses. During this webinar, community experts provide an overview of the crisis model being developed and implemented in St. Tammany Parish, Louisiana, and offer background on how to get started locally on implementation of a new crisis system.

Following the presentations, NAMI’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Ken Duckworth will lead a guided discussion and Q&A with a panel of experts including Mary Burckell, Director of Safe Haven, Nick Richard, Executive Director of NAMI St. Tammany, Tom Rowan, Project Director and Peer Support Specialist Supervisor of NAMI St. Tammany, and Judge Alan Zaunbrecher, 22nd Judicial District Court of Louisiana. To register, visit NAMI’s website.

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Movies

JxJ celebrates Jewish LGBTQ film at festival

Movies include ‘Kiss Me Kosher,’ ‘Marry Me However’

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A scene from 'Bra Mitzvah'

For this year’s festival lineup, JxJ will be presenting its “Rated LGBTQ” series, which highlights films with LGBTQ themes, characters, and creators. The festival will run from May 23-30. The films featured include: “Kiss Me Kosher”(outdoor screening at the Bender JCC May 30 at 8pm, $12 per person); “Marry Me However” (virtual screening, $11 per household); “Sublet” (virtual screening, $11 per household); “Bra Mitzvah” (short film, part of the Run the World (Girls) virtual shorts program, $11 per household); “I Want to Make a Film About Women” (short film, part of the Breaking Through virtual shorts program, $11 per household).

Tickets and information about the films are available here.

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