Villanova Theatre: No one can rain on this ‘Parade’

Kristen DiLeonardo

Bravo! The first word that comes to mind about Villanova University Theater’s rendition of “Parade” is fantastic! On Tuesday March 23, I attended opening night of the musical based on Alfred Uhry’s novel. The setting is Atlanta, Ga., 1913-1915 when confederate pride still prevailed and a false sense of justice could soothe an angry mob. “Parade,” a timeless yet prematurely misunderstood story, closed on Broadway in 1998. Today, in the face of injustice and tragedy, Villanova’s thespians are conveying a message appropriate not only for 1913 Atlanta but for 2004 everywhere. As Gina Pisasale reveals in the program, “We assert or identity with and devotion to our homeland, but still question the process of human justice and its parade of hatred and mercy, rage and dignity. ‘Parade’ is not simply a story of the South, with its troubled past and traditions. Rather, it hands down a dark legacy with which we all must grapple and aspire to transcend.” It is this awakening message that is so powerfully vivid in “Parade.”

The story of Leo Frank and his devoted wife Lucille is heart-wrenching to say the least. When a shy Jewish workaholic from Brooklyn moves to Atlanta Ga., his wife’s hometown, he is instantly an outcast. Aside from being a Yankee in the South, Leo is the superintendent at a factory that employs child laborers. Southerners make him nervous, anxious and jittery; he longs for New York where people look, talk and act like him.

When Confederate Memorial Day rolls around a 13-year-old girl arrives at the factory to receive her pay from Mr. Frank. This is where it all begins. The following morning, Mary Phagan is found murdered in the factory’s basement. There are two suspects, night man Newt Lee and Leo Frank. But, there is an election around the corner for the local government and Solicitor Hugh Dorsey, seeking re-election, is assured by the governor that hanging another black man will just not do, they needed more. They needed to convict this Brooklyn Jew. After a barrage of false testimonies and coached witnesses, Leo Frank is found guilty.

His desperate appeal denied, Leo is sentenced to hang until dead.

Through the tireless efforts of Lucille Frank, the governor is convinced to take a closer look at these witnesses; low and behold it is discovered that they perjured themselves on the stand. Closer to innocence, Leo’s sentence is reduced to life; yet this is not enough. An innocent man yearning for his freedom and mourning for wasted time, finally realizes the undying faithful love of the woman by his side. Still in an uproar, the town and bleeding for “justice” takes matters into their own hands.

This is the true story of a falsely accused man, murdered in the name of justice. The musical is packed with passion, intensity and an undeniable sense of compassion. Several times, I was brought to tears. The actors and actresses combined their souls to create a powerful musical ensemble. Josh Sauerman and Nina Donze — Leo and Lucille Frank — are superb! Sauerman’s versatile portrayals of Leo the workaholic, Leo as created by the factory girls and Leo a changed man, are flawless. Everything down to his facial expression invokes sympathy for his innocence. Donze’s powerful voice paired with the undeniable strength she gives Lucille is a magnificent combination. Together Sauerman and Donze give “Parade” a timeless quality of devotion and unfailing love.

The wonderfully entertaining personality of Britt Craig, played by Jason J. Michael, made for a refreshing interruption in the drama. His spectacular performance of “Big News” had the audience beaming. Strong musical performances by Ron Lee Jones, Andre N. Jones and Michael Barr also added a strong range of emotions to the plot. A large portion of the theater could be seen wiping their eyes after Barr and the ensemble performed “There is a Fountain/It Don’t Make Sense.” Everything from the lighting, to sound, to scenery was exemplary. The onstage hanging for instance did not fail to trigger gasps from viewers; but most of all, the ensemble was sensationally moving with its high-powered vocals and inspiring tones. Under the direction of Rev. Peter M. Donohue, O.S.A., the cast and crew has created a hit. Congratulations to all those involved, this has been one of the most powerful performances I have seen in our theater.