How many regular patrons of Dallas Summer Musicals will wander innocently into Parade, the latest imported presentation, with images inside their heads of cheerfully tacky floats, colorful twirling parasols, and the painted round faces of children? This very new musical from playwright Alfred Uhry, director Harold Prince, and composer Jason Robert Brown makes its Southwest premiere at the Music Hall in Fair Park, but its title is generically syrupy enough in that sticky-sweet musical way to make you think the show is decades old and has already been made into a 1950s movie starring Audrey Hepburn or Natalie Wood. But, in fact, the stuff that makes the soles of your shoes stick to the Music Hall floor is blood: Uhry and Brown based their musical on the sad true tale of Leo Frank, a Jewish man who was lynched in 1913 Atlanta after he'd been falsely accused and convicted of the rape and murder of a 14-year-old employee at his factory. So, are we ready to kick up our heels and belt out a tune?
Actually, I'd argue that this kind of subject matter is far more appropriate--or, at least, more satisfying and conducive to real humanitarian impact--to be rendered as a musical than what normally receives the treatment. Comedy and romance are most effective when they dig up the right tiny details and piece them together into a mosaic that looks like me and the people in my life. They touch me in only the most intimate and understated and ironic contexts. Being in love might make me want to sing, but it's the very specific sights and sounds and tastes and touch of a lover that stir this desire. Musicals have it backward: They, too, often skip the texture of the particulars and head straight to the delirious rapture and torture. When they can't locate and relate the motivation, the results--all that self-absorbed caterwauling--reminds me most of all how foolish and fixated and annoying romance can make us.
Tragedy, I would further argue, can earn--in fact, deserves--a more communitarian and cooperative approach. I might not need or want the same things out of love that you do, but if a mob carries us or one of our loved ones off to be strung up from a tree, I'd warrant our responses--if not necessarily their expression--would be mighty similar. And that's where the singer steps in: Sorrow and fear are the great equalizers of the human condition, and the performer who skillfully vocalizes them embraces all of us in the same lyric. A show such as Parade also expresses moments of hope and affection and mercy, but in a crisis situation. There's the key, because in the confrontation with our mortality, when it all seems pretty futile, an exhilarating last stand is to open your mouth and let 'er rip.
Director Harold Prince is the primary New York interpreter for the indispensable Stephen Sondheim, so he's helped chart this territory since the beginning. Parade seems even less whimsical--if that's possible--and more overtly political and documentarian in tone than Sondheim. In a new-millennial America where racial slights are sometimes protected zealously by those who've been slighted, Uhry and Brown's book and score reveal some ugly new wounds--chiefly, the fact that historical evidence reveals that the killer-rapist was, most likely, a black man who fingered the Jewish fellow lynched by the Atlanta mob.
In the exultant tune "A Rumblin' and a Rollin'," the probable killer Jim Conley (Keith Byron Kirk) dances with other black men on a chain gang, delighted that for once, a paleface will take the rap. Leo Frank (David Pittu) is a rather cold man who has two other strikes against him in pre-WWI South--he's Jewish and a native New Yorker--but the governor of Georgia (Rick Hilsabreck) is convinced to spare him from death by Leo's tireless wife Lucille (Andrea Burns), who can document how corrupted her husband's trial was. "Hail the resurrection of the South's least sacred son!" Leo calls out in triumph, but we know it's a short-lived reprieve: Designer Riccardo Hernandez's gigantic oak looms silently over the proceedings, ready to pounce.
This touring production of Parade is watertight, eloquent, and sometimes harrowing, but it's always expert at translating unpleasant, intertwined emotions and unsympathetic characters into touching musical expression. It comes closer than Sondheim ever has to successfully interweaving elements of Greek tragedy and opera. The Greek influence seems especially forceful in the centerpiece trial sequence, in which prejudiced jury members combine with unscrupulous lawyers and perjuring witnesses in a chorus of condemnation against Leo Frank. When Frank attempts to defend himself, voice trembling, with "It's Hard to Speak My Heart," we see with crushing clarity that a commonplace weakness--the inability to express one's feelings--has been transformed into a tragic flaw.
The brilliant arts pundits at The New York Times were profoundly perplexed about why the national ratings for this year's Tony Awards TV broadcast were not only low (that's typical), but among the lowest in the show's history. Talk about confusing your fishbowl for the Atlantic Ocean. Since the mediocre stage critics for the Old Gray Lady act as shepherds for the New York flock, single-handedly herding them toward or away from multimillion-dollar shows with one review, they can't understand why the rest of America doesn't scurry when they snap. They don't get why the Tonys are unable to pull in a humongous viewership like the Academy Awards. I don't get why they don't get this. After all, the Oscars exist to be made fun of with a group of friends and to root for the occasional deserving winner like Hilary Swank; there's no satisfaction in ripping up some actor you've never heard of starring in a play you haven't seen, even if they're underpaid and underexposed in ultra-glamorous New York.
No, the real, benevolent pleasure of a theater scene can be found in what former Broadway actor and current Dallas performer Beverly May called "proprietorship"--a city supporting and, therefore, participating in local productions. I'm consistently astounded at the people who decline to see anything except the Dallas Opera and shows put on at the Dallas Theater Center and the Dallas Summer Musicals, because Dallas isn't a theater town, and these organizations chiefly use out-of-towners. They don't understand that this is a self-fulfilling prophecy, of course; "theater towns" are full of theater audiences who patronize theater artists. In the case of Dallas, it ain't the performers who've fallen down on the job.
An excellent opportunity to do your part is The Second Annual Festival of Independent Theatres at the Bath House Cultural Center, the city space that, I'm pleased to observe, has given the MAC some healthy competition of late. Their stage is always booked with modest if often quality shows full of challenging ideas. FIT is the big, glittery belt buckle that holds up the Bath House's ambitions to nurture a Dallas scene. Nine theater companies, many of which can barely afford to produce the rest of the year, offer short plays from the fantastical to the historical, the naturalistic to the preposterous. Five Dallas playwrights are represented, three with never-before-produced scripts.
By all means, see everything you can, but let me recommend three best bets based on past performances and combination of talents. First off, there is the Wingspan Theatre world premiere of Only Me, written by the prolific Teatro Dallas scribe Valerie Brogan. She jokingly refers to the production as "a raft of Cindys" because it features three knockout, similarly monikered talents--director Cynthia Hestand and actors Cindee Mayfield and Cindy Beall. Brogan is loath to give away too much, but when pressed, she drops a few details.
"It's about two women from two different time periods," she says. "It's the relationship between a contemporary woman and Mary Kingsley, the African explorer from the 1890s. I wanted to write about being mentored by the dead. Sometimes the living don't have the answers for you. You can only find what you need from the dead."
Next up, check out the Our Endeavors production of Kurt Vonnegut's rarely staged Fortitude. Mark Farr directs a cast headed by Christina Vela and John Flores, real-life husband and wife, in a tale that uses the phrase "giving head" quite literally--in this case, it's Mrs. Lovejoy, a hundred-year-old decapitated head who gives a lovesick mad scientist everything he needs out of life. Scott Osborne, artistic director and designer of Our Endeavors, will create the show's eclectic sci-fi look and make a cameo appearance as an actor.
"I'm hesitant to take on a larger role, because it's hard enough to compartmentalize my job during rehearsals," Osborne notes. "Thinking, 'When is my cue?' and 'Does that look right?' at the same time is crazy." Of the show's design, he says, "I've been collecting all kinds of little things for years, little lights and doodads and gewgaws I knew I'd be able to use. We've kind of taken a Jules Verne sci-fi influence. We didn't want to go straight-on futurism. I threw in some Victorian elements and some '50s sci-fi. I had to create a machine that the head is attached to. It's one of three or four nice, well-thought out, fleshed-out set pieces."
Finally, don't forget the Echo Theatre staging of Susan Gladspell's 1916 one-act homicide thriller Trifles, directed by Ellen Locy. Gladspell was a journalist in college who spent five months covering a real murder that happened in the windy isolation of a Nebraska farmhouse. A farmer was killed in his bed, and his wife was carted off to jail. Gladspell dramatized it by placing two married couples--a sheriff and his wife, and a neighboring farmer and his spouse--at the scene shortly after the crime has been committed.
"It's definitely a feminist piece," Locy says. "Everyone says, 'Oh, I read that in college, but I've never seen it on stage.' There aren't many opportunities to professionally produce a 30-minute play. This one examines a little-known phenomenon. When you do research about turn-of-the-century Midwestern loony bins, you learn they were filled with farm wives. The isolation and the unending work drove some women nutty. In fact, I'd say isolation is almost another character in this show."
Get the Arts & Culture Newsletter
Find out about arts and culture events in Dallas and offers you won't hear about anywhere else.