Review: PARADE at Writers Theatre

Review: PARADE at Writers Theatre

Often we go see musicals to escape. We lose ourselves in the pleasure of song and dance, and narrative conflicts that are neatly resolved in two acts. We see musicals because they are frequently joyous and light-hearted and allow us to forget, if just for a few hours, what’s happening in the world around us.

PARADE, now in a blistering and beautifully minimalist production from director Gary Griffin, is not that musical. Though it is based off the real-life 1913 trial of Jewish pencil factory worker Leo Frank and was written by Jason Robert Brown and Alfred Uhry in 1998, this musical feels entirely of this moment. Set in Atlanta, Georgia, the musical follows Leo as he is imprisoned and put on trial after being falsely accused of the murder of Mary Phagan, a pre-teen girl found dead in the basement of the pencil factory. Georgia governor Hugh Dorsey wants to rapidly resolve the case and pins the blame on Leo-and coerces factory janitor Jim Conley to serve as an eye witness. The residents of Atlanta buy into Dorsey’s false narrative, as they’re distrustful of Frank and also want to see Mary’s death avenged.

Brown’s score echoes this somber, hateful tone at every turn, and this production packs quite the gut punch. The singing throughout ranges from capable to superlative, with some outstanding harmonies under the musical direction of Michael Mahler. At Frank’s trial, three young factory workers (here played by Leryn Turlington, Zoe Nadal, and Lindsay Maron) sing in perfect harmony as they falsely testify that Leo has made advances. At the beginning of the second act, Nicole Michelle Haskins and Jonah D. Winston, as servants Angela and Riley, bring down the house with “Rumblin’ and a Rollin’.” To disclose much more about the number would be to spoil a pivotal moment, but this number has eerie echoes of 2017, and Winston and Haskins’s vocals seal the deal. Other standouts include Caroline Heffernan as Mary Phagan, Jake Nicholson as her young love interest Frankie Epps, and Jonathan Butler-Duplessis in a powerhouse turn as Jim Conley.

Of course this PARADE would not command nearly the impact it does without a sympathetic Leo Frank (Patrick Andrews) and his wife Lucille (Brianna Borger). While Andrews is not the strongest vocalist in the company, he is an incredible fit for the role. His Leo is callused and rough around the edges-for the show by no means portrays its protagonist as a saint-but still sympathetic. In every note he sings and line he delivers, Andrews embodies the pain and aggravation of his character. Without a doubt, Borger’s performance as Lucille is one of the most compelling reasons to see this production. She is a powerful actress, yes, but also a stunning vocalist. Borger’s voice seems to soar across the stage, and while her performance is undoubtedly effortful, she makes it look easy. Andrews and Borger also have a rapport onstage that deepens throughout the production, culminating in the haunting second act love ballad “All The Wasted Time.” While PARADE is shrouded in darkness, this is a moment of hope and beauty-though it foreshadows coming devastation.

In PARADE, Writers Theatre has again proven it can stage musicals that feel at once grandiose and intimate. Though Scott Davis’s scenic design is sparse and the ensemble is not huge, this show and score fill the space with an intensity impossible to ignore. As staged here, PARADE could not feel more timely. It is an emotionally draining show to watch and yet immensely rewarding in how it allows us to reflect—and to indulge in Brown’s opulent score beautifully delivered by this ensemble.

PARADE is now extended through July 9 at Writers Theatre, 325 Tudor Court in Glencoe, Illinois. For tickets or more information, visit

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Photo by Michael Brosilow

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