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Review: MUSE’s PARADE

This is “theatre with a purpose…beyond a fun night out”.

Full cast stands singing choral number on shadowy stage, downlight providing spot illumination. Tonazzi's minimalist set and Balboni's period costuming shown to full advantage. Photo credit: Keshav Unhelkar

 

In PARADE’s program, director Hayden Tonazzi thanks the audience for supporting “theatre with a purpose… beyond a fun night out”. MUSE’s latest production has the good fortune to be both. From the first swell of its chorus this outstanding musical arrests your attention and propels you towards a harrowing conclusion.

Alfred Uhry and Jason Robert Brown’s 1998 musical, chronicling the 1913 trial of Jewish factory manager Leo Frank, feels alarmingly contemporary. Exploring the corrosive effects of political corruption, false testimony and sensationalist journalism, this infrequently performed musical could not be staged at a more relevant time.

PARADE transports us to 20th century Atlanta, Georgia: a town still draped in confederate flags and brimming with righteous Southern pride. Frank is Brooklyn-born, college-educated and Jewish. When he’s accused of raping and murdering his 13-year-old employee, it’s evident that he will not be tried by ‘a jury of his peers’.

Authenticity is at the heart of Tonazzi’s production. All the actors deliver emotionally resonant performances and handle their American accents with aplomb—a rarity in any university production and a marvel in a cast this large. The minimalistic set (courtesy of Tonazzi’s cleverly multifunctional design) and symbolically resonant costuming (Laura Balboni) feel as true as the story this musical is based on.

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However, striving for realism and era-accuracy in a production that grapples with race relations is a challenging task. In a post-Hamilton world, it was confronting to only see three actors of colour (Naisa Lasalosi, Stephanie Ampofo and Samuel Asamoah) and all of them cast in roles of servitude—as a convict turned cleaning supervisor, a housemaid and a night watchman. If Tonazzi’s goal was to unsettle, he succeeded.

Tackling such heavy subject matter, PARADE’s humour is an unexpected pleasure. The cast hit their comedic beats with ease, never failing to elicit laughter (Jack Westbury’s brief but memorable appearance as The Guard being a particular delight). Tonazzi’s direction is masterful: the pacing is brilliant and he ensures that the undulations between tragic and comic are never too jarring.

Brendan Paul and Sarah Levins as Leo and Lucille Frank richly develop their characters over the two-hour production.  Paul embodies Frank—walled up and unlikeable—from the moment he enters the stage. He manipulates a difficult, multi-dimensional role and his spectacular physicality sells the transformation from nervous hypochondriac to tender husband. Levins’ nuanced portrayal of Lucille is deeply affecting, arousing the audience’s sympathies from her opening bars in ‘What Am I Waiting For?’ and holding them captive until the curtain call.

With disarming charisma and undeniable talent, Lasalosi shines as Jim Conley. His performance of ‘Blues: Feel the Rain Fall’, performed among the shadows cast by his chain gang, is one of the production’s highlights. Hamish Stening is another stand out. His turn as smiling villain, Hugh Dorsey, feels like a 20th century Frank Underwood.

PARADE boasts a talented orchestra who run the gamut of genres: tackling blues, gospel and swing as well as the usual campy musical fare. The vocals are always solid and, in the cases of Levins and Lasalosi, often phenomenal.

Tonazzi and the cast of PARADE execute a complex and demanding work with a maturity that is to be applauded—and I have no doubt that it will be.

PARADE plays at the Seymour Centre’s Everest Theatre, 21-23 March at 8pm and 24 March at 7pm.