Director Frank Barnhart knits together a large and capable cast in an epic and intimate staging of the musical drama, which opened yesterday to applause at the Jewish Community Center's Roth/Resler Theatre.
Always sobering and dignified but sometimes rising to stirring moments of passionate hope, anger and moral outrage, Gallery's area premiere artfully evokes a bygone era whose political, racial and religious issues continue to surface in America today.
Composer-lyricist Jason Robert Brown (The Last Five Years) and author Alfred Uhry (Driving Miss Daisy) faithfully based Parade, a 1999 Tony award winner for best score and book, on the true story of a Jewish pencil-factory manager accused of raping and murdering a young female employee.
Without a superior performance in the central tragic role, Parade would fall well short of its potential power. At Gallery Players, Jon Schelb plays Leo Frank with haunting pathos from his early scenes of fish-out-of-water obliviousness and anxious bewilderment to later moments of palpable anguish and despair.
As Lucille Frank, Leo's long-suffering wife, Liz Wheeler is well-matched with Schelb. Wheeler convincingly moves from nervous weakness to surprising strength.
Together, Wheeler and Schelb become the soulful heart of the tragic story, generating poignant chemistry that slowly builds to the piercing duet, All the Wasted Time.
Drew Eberly adds go-getting energy and cynical humor in Real Big News and other scenes as the newspaper reporter who seizes his opportunity to cover a sensational murder and trial.
Among the other powerful singer-actors: Quentin Schofield-Peaks, as the black janitor who becomes a pivotal witness; Jay Rittberger, as the prejudiced and politically influenced prosecutor; and Joel B . Cohen, as the judge whose conscience pricks him near his deathbed.
Backed by a top-notch orchestra, the strong singing and acting extends deep into the ranks of the 25-member cast, which includes such vocal stalwarts as Eileen Howard (as mourning Mrs. Phagan), Danielle Mann and Dawn Farrell.
Rachel Bodner's formal period costumes, Chris Clapp's fluid scenic design and especially Jason Banks' colorful lighting help bring the bygone era and city to burnished life.
Barnhart's bravura staging, which builds on the bold stage design with sepia-tinged crowd tableaus and achingly private moments, seems to place the entire Atlanta community under the spotlight -- and on trial.
On both the court case and this stirring production, the verdict seems all too clear.