There is a group of theatre people in this city that are consistently bringing City Level performances to the stages without pay, advancement or quite often any recognition outside of the constricted world of Jacksonville Community Theater. Batboy, Rocky Horror, Majigeen, Billie to Badu, and now Parade. One theater has ended up being the gathering place for the musical theater talent of this city, an out of the way little playhouse that is dreadfully underfunded especially compared to the significantly higher quality performances that are being undertaken there. Players By The Sea, with a stellar executive staff combining talent that hasn't been seen in generations, and a recent risktaking trend has transformed the one time sleepy little community theater into one of the most powerful creative establishments in the Consolidated City of Jacksonville. PBTS staging of Parade highlights an alignment of constellations that makes a Star out of Staci Cobb, cements the reputation of Lee Hamby as the most vibrant male vocalist on the Florida Stage and makes PBTS one of the most important cultural resources in the city.
Players By The Sea is in an unassuming location off of Beach Boulevard at Jacksonville Beach. The Building started life as an old skating rink at the beaches. It had a stint as a coin operated laundry. It is presently home to the cities most creative organized theatre network of the past thirty years.
Not since the ill fated creative fire of Jacksonville Actor's Theatre and moments of the Springfield Theatre movement has there been so much risk taking and creative energy associated with a performance venue.
No doubt the leadership of Joseph Schwarz as executive director and his commitment to risk taking and fun performances is largely to blame. Schwarz has been actively pushing the envelope on what is considered the acceptable bandwidth of community theatre for at least half a decade and the results are paying off with dividends.
Also associated with the group is the giant creativity and energy of Lee Hamby, who is presently serving on the board as the Production Design Manager, and the intense depth and talent of Barbara Williams as Education Director. They both bring networks of people that would serve as the backbone for a blockbuster theatre establishment. On the board is Devlin Mann, of Backlight Theatre and Dance as is the indomitable Gayle Featheringill. Michael Lipp, one of the surprisingly great directors of the area is in frequent residence.
Most of these people are involved with Parade, which is blowing the doors off of the wholly-inadequate-to-the-event playhouse.
Debuting 12 years ago (according to Wikipedia: Parade is a musical with a book by Alfred Uhry and music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown. The musical was first produced on Broadway at the Vivian Beaumont Theater on December 17, 1998.), it is an unlikely candidate for Musical Theatre.
The musical dramatizes the 1913 trial of Jewish factory manager Leo Frank, who was accused and convicted of raping and murdering a thirteen-year-old employee, Mary Phagan. The trial, sensationalized by the media, aroused anti-Semitic tensions in Atlanta. When Frank's death sentence was commuted to life in prison by the departing Governor of Georgia, John M. Slaton due to his detailed review of over 10,000 pages of testimony and possible problems with the trial, Leo Frank was transferred to a prison in Milledgeville, Georgia, where a lynching party seized and kidnapped him. Frank was taken to Phagan's hometown of Marietta, Georgia, and he was hanged from an oak tree. The events surrounding the investigation and trial led to two groups emerging, the revival of the defunct KKK and the birth of a premier Jewish Civil Rights organization. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) was formed in response to the anti-Semitism surrounding Leo Frank's trial and lynching.
The story has long had special resonance for Jacksonville. In almost immediate response to the revival of the Klan, two years later, the Jacksonville Klan openly formed in 1915 and racist policy began to overtake the Progressive politics which Jacksonville had been known for. Marietta is only a stones throw from here after all, and the events of the trial were luridly followed in our local press. It was the beginning of the end of the Black Cultural Genesis of LaVilla.
Oscar Micheaux, the handsome actor and director so associated with the Norman Studios would revisit the trial twice after he abandoned Jacksonville for Chicago. Micheaux's first version was a silent film, The Gunsaulus Mystery (1921). Still haunted by the event, which changed so much of the South, 14 years later he made Murder in Harlem (1935). He portrayed the character analogous to Frank as guilty and set the film in New York, removing sectional conflict as one of the cultural forces in the trial. In this version the Frank character was instead a Boston Brahmin (and guilty) and the little girl who was murdered was a black girl. He recut and released this film as Lem Hawkins' Confession
The tragic, true story of the trial and lynching of a man wrongly accused of murder is brought to emotional and theatrical life by acclaimed Southern playwright Alfred Uhry (Driving Miss Daisy) and Jason Robert Brown, one of Broadway's most promising young composers (Songs For A New World and The Last Five Years).
In 1913, Leo Frank (Josh Waller), a Brooklyn-raised Jew living in Georgia, is put on trial for the murder of 13-year-old Mary Phagan (Katie Sacks), a factory worker under his employ. Already guilty in the eyes of everyone around him, a sensationalist publisher and a janitor's false testimony seal Leo's fate.
His only defenders are a Governor with a conscience and eventually his assimilated Southern wife, Lucille (Staci Cobb) who finds the strength and love to become his greatest champion. Parade was the winner of the 1999 Tony Award for Best Book of a Musical and Best Original Musical Score, and was also the winner of the 1999 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Musical, Outstanding Book of a Musical, and Outstanding Score of a Musical.
The musical has had a fairly respectable tour, but after viewing various recordings of the Broadway and other touring company productions, the version created here in Jacksonville is superior in most respects, and comparable in all others.
It is directed by Michael Lipp, whose nearly invisible touch and seamless transitions leaves all the focus on the character development and music onstage. For a period piece this is a dramatic departure, as the tendency is almost always to spend time showing off the elaborate recreations, costumes, and sets. While all of these elements are strikingly effective and executed in this production, there is no sense that one is supposed to be noticing them. Lipp was able to carry this off because of the tremendous performances turned in by the extremely well cast ensemble.
The acting in this musical is superb. Usually a musical production at a community theatre has two strikes going against the acting: Musicals tend to be about vocals and dancing for one, and Community Theatre is usually so based on seniority and the politics of availability that often times, directors simply have to make do.
This is noticeably absent from the production, the majority of the performances are solid, and in three instances, the performances are breathtaking.
Lee Hamby, transforms the minor role of Britt Craig into a performance that leaves the audience literally waiting for more from him. The moment he steps on stage, he owns it, and every second he sings is contagious fun and complex comedy. From his perfect costuming to his larger than life performance, Lee Hamby's 10 minutes of solo performance are some of the most fun you can have with all your clothes on.
Steven Anderson crafts one of the most complex, darkest character developments that this reviewer has ever personally seen onstage outside of the Springfield Theater Movement.
Staci Cobb puts in a performance that is nothing less than a star turn. She is transcendent, lovely, sympathetic and moves the audience to tears and moments of rapture within the awful context of the events portrayed. This performance would have been great with any other actress in the role of Lucille Frank, but it would never have been the searing, memorable theatre that Ms. Cobb's performance brings to it.
Parade, as written, is essentially a love story between a man and his wife set against the shocking events of the Trial and eventual Lynching of Leo Frank. In Lipp's version we witness the transformation of the repressed Lucille Frank, struggling to find her place as a Jewish and Southern wife into a brave, risk taking woman equal in every way to the task before her.
In fact, Cobb's performance is so strong that musical numbers which elicited only nominal reactions from the national performances brought tears at the PBTS production. All the comic elements of her character from the original show are replaced by a warmth and determination that loses perhaps the Jewish stereotype but gains exponentially more in the process. The audience connects with Lucille in an unanticipated way and by the end, all attention is on the radiant Staci Cobb.
The performance of Steven Anderson, likewise, is a star turn. He plays Jim Conley, a riveting character in real life, and the man whom many historians suspect to be the actual murderer. Anderson plays him as a bit of a pool hall sharpie: Bitter, cynical, dishonest and more than glad to see Leo Frank hang for the crime. His voice is finely textured and the range of his acting was amazing. He came across as a charming scamp, and the audience is left wanting to know more about his involvement, and what price he was paid in return for his cooperation.
Anderson is a veteran of interesting theatre, and has collaborated with Barbara Williams, and Al Letson in Julius X. He needs a lot more time on stage in front of Jacksonville audiences.
Bill Ratliff, as prosecutor Hugh Dorsey
Likewise, there are notable performances put in by Bill Ratliff, who seems to have been genetically engineered to play the part of a southern prosecutor with political ambitions. The role of Sally Slaton (the wife of then Governor Slaton) is admirably played by Stacy Williams. Also, Katie Sacks as the tragic Mary Phagan, Josh Taylor as Officer Ivey, and Mary Herrington, Maisaa Kayal, and Tracy Davis as 'The Factory Girls' are standout performances.
The lighting is simple, practical and solidly effective, and al aspects of the technical theater are admirably engineered.
The orchestra and music, directed by Sam Clein is brilliant, moodsetting and contemporary.
If you have not seen a live performance recently, or you do not see any other show this summer, then go see Parade. There is a reason why the first weekend was totally sold out. The play is moving, an improvement over the national tour, and covers subject matter that had a direct effect on our own history here in Jacksonville.
The city is lucky to have these (shockingly volunteer) theatrical talents, and they are turning a small seaside theater company into an establishment of regional importance.
One of the most striking things I noticed about the sold out show was the preponderance of people under the age of 40 in the audience. Not since the days of Springfield Theater have theatre audiences been so young or for that matter so enthusiastic about what they were seeing on the stage.
Music and Lyrics by Jason Robert Brown
Book by Alfred Uhry
DIRECTED by Michael Lipp
MUSICAL DIRECTION by Samuel Clein
JULY 22, 23, 24, 29, 30, and 31
at 8:00 p.m.
Players by the Sea Theatre
106 Sixth St. North
Jacksonville Beach, FL
Information and Reservations: (904) 249-0289 or visit www.playersbythesea.org
PARADE features a cast of THIRTY of some of Jacksonville's strongest musical theatre performers, led by an award-winning creative team and accompanied by an eight-piece orchestra .
* Leo Frank - Josh Waller
* Lucille Frank - Staci Cobb
* Jim Conley - Steven Anderson
* Mary Phagan - Katie Sacks
* Tom Watson - Robert Banks
* Iola Stover - Mary Herrington
* Frankie Epps - Chris Robertson
* Mrs. Phagan - Leslie Richart
* Britt Craig - Lee Hamby
* Hugh Dorsey - Bill Ratliff
* Newt Lee - Eugene Lindsey
* Governor John Slaton - Roger Lowe
* Monteen - Tracy Davis
* Leroy - Dominique Lawson
* Christy Mull - Betty Jean
* Essie - Maisaa Kayal
* Old Soldier/Judge Roan - Bill White
* Young Soldier/Fiddlin' John - Stephen Johns
* Floyd MacDaniel/Mr. Peavy - Evan Gould
Luther Rosser -Jeff Grove
* Sally Slaton - Stacy Williams
* JN Starnes - Zeek Smith
* Officer Ivey - Joshua Taylor
* Prison Guard - Jeff Wells
* Lizzie Phagan - Emily Suarez
* Angela - Miranda Lawson
* Riley - JRoyce Denard-Walton
* Ensemble - Gary Baker
* Ensemble - Julia Fallon
* Ensemble - Judy Gould