Fuse Productions’ ‘Parade’ centers on past, present social injustice

James McCready (Leo Frank) and Madeline Biever (Lucille Frank) star in Fuse Productions’ “Parade.”
James McCready (Leo Frank) and Madeline Biever (Lucille Frank) star in Fuse Productions’ “Parade.” Photo provided

Following in a line of heart-wrenching and beautiful shows like “Carousel,” “West Side Story” and “Fiddler on the Roof,” Fuse Productions will continue its season with a staging of “Parade,” which won a best score Tony in 1999.

The musical takes place in Atlanta in 1913 and tells the true story of Leo Frank, a Brooklyn, N.Y.-raised Jew put on trial for the murder of one of his factory workers, 13-year-old Mary Phagan.

“I believe ‘Parade’ is in the top 10 of the greatest musicals of the 20th century,” director Richard Biever said. “The script, written by Alfred Uhry, deftly conveys an enormous amount of information, concisely and dramatically. It does not stereotype Southerners but it doesn’t flinch at exposing bigotry and injustice.”

“Parade” stars James McCready as Leo Frank; Madeline Biever as Lucille Frank; Actors’ Equity guest artist Nicole Johndrow in the role of Mrs. Phagan, the murdered girl’s mother; and Sallie Slaton, the Georgia governor’s wife. The production also features two Penn State musical theater majors — Aidan Wharton, playing the Young Soldier and Frankie Epps, and Chas Conacher as Britt Craig, the reporter.

The introverted and awkward Leo Frank feels severely out of place, as the people of Atlanta and the general ways of Southern people make him uncomfortable. His relationship with his wife, Lucille, is awkward as well, so he focuses solely on his work while Lucille continues to attempt romantic gestures.

“When Leo becomes a suspect of the murder of Mary Phagan, the people of Atlanta jump on the bandwagon of hate and racism, spewing lies about him — even when testifying in the trial,” McCready said. “Leo is a tragic figure in the show. He gets thrown into this situation and there’s really nothing he can do.”

The process for this production has been different for McCready and the cast, as preparations have included plenty of research on the Frank case.

“There are many books on the case, the murder, and the lynching — books that are full of more details than we know what to do with,” McCready said. “The challenge is being truthful to the history and to who these people were, but not losing sight of the story we are telling. It’s finding the balance between history and drama.”

McCready said he believes “Parade” can definitely educate people, especially today with younger people who have never heard of the Frank case.

“When we think of racism, we almost solely think of black history, which is definitely something we still need to think about,” he said. “But it’s been really eye-opening to research how all minorities were treated in our country throughout time. I think there’s a lot to learn about America’s history and a lot to learn about injustice.”

Lucille is Georgia born and raised but is also Jewish like her husband. Her role is surprisingly pivotal, as Lucille works very hard to get justice for Leo.

“I really identify with Lucille, she’s reluctant to speak her mind at first, but throughout the show she discovers how much she can do to help the case and her husband, while finding her voice,” Madeline Biever said.

Mrs. Phagan was a poor widow, so she had to take Mary out of school at a very young age to work in a pencil factory. Sallie Slaton is Governor John (Jack) Slaton’s wife, and is a proper Southern politician’s wife.

“I love how different these characters are from each other, but how both roles really focus on their respective core relationships — one with her daughter, and the other with her husband,” Johndrow said.

As an actor, Johndrow only hopes to do her job well, find honesty in her given circumstances, and remain focused on the wants and needs of her characters. As for the show in general, Johndrow like many others thinks “Parade” can be educational for the theatergoing community.

“In terms of American history, this was certainly an early case of the media affecting, and obliterating, the notion of receiving a fair trial, and how, when biased, this media frenzy can create a ‘mob mentality’ within a community,” she said. “I find that to be extremely frightening about this case, and I think it’s very well-captured in the show.”

McCready thinks there is something to be said about “mob mentality,” which he promises will be clearly evident in this show. “Parade” illustrates just how dangerous mob mentality and is consequences are. It is something we still deal with today, via media coverage and the public’s responses to the events.

“American history is made more compelling by theater and drama,” he said. “In school, history can be quite dull. But here, all of the sudden, these real people are in front of you, reliving these moments. It supplies emotion and context to what would otherwise be stale facts and statistics.”

It’s easy as time goes by for people to remove the humanity from the situation, as is the case with this tragic story. With “Parade,” McCready hopes that people will have a better understanding of how we view historical tragedies.

“What you’ll see in ‘Parade’ is the tragedy happening in real-time — the panic, the terror, the confusion, and the hatred; which gives a face and a voice to these people,” he said. “The audience is in for quite a rollercoaster. There are many ups and downs in the story. And let’s not forget the gorgeous music — it’s truly incredible. There are heartbreaking and tragic songs, but also songs of triumph and love.”