Tuesday, April 20, 2010

A Parade in Town

In DC, just about every week there is some kind of parade celebrating something. You probably didn't hear about the one in which I participated last week.

It was a staged reading of the musical called Parade. The event was produced by Ford's Theatre, which used to call itself Historic Ford's Theatre, which made it sound very stuffy; they've gotten away from that a bit lately, what with their current offering of Little Shop of Horrors, about which I recently wrote. (Ford's has grown less stuffy, I haven't). This reading was actually similar to a backer's audition. The theatre's artistic staff, headed by Paul Tetreault and Mark Ramont, wants to produce Parade in a couple of years, but the cost of doing so apparently requires more funding than the theatre normally gets. So, the Powers That Be decided to pull together a staged reading of the piece and present it in front of a bunch of DC's Big Pockets, in hopes that they will step up and fund the production.

I have never worked at Ford's, and have only recently popped up on their casting radar, I'm not sure why. I was excited to get a callback for their upcoming musical Liberty Smith a month or so ago, then missed the damn thing because of some kind of food poisoning or something. I just could not justify going into the audition and barfing all over the director, so I had to bale on the audition, to my regret (if you are twisted enough to want to know more, I wrote about it all here). But I was fully fit and ready to work when Mark Ramont, who is the theatre's associate artistic director and acts as their local casting director, invited me to participate in this reading of Parade.

Most actors in town participate in staged readings at one time or another, DC is lousy with them. I've written more than once about the 16, count 'em SIXTEEN readings I did with the Washington Stage Guild during the period in which they were not producing fully. I enjoy doing them, despite the lack of remuneration, as it gives me the chance to experiment with a wide range of characters I may not otherwise come across.

Though part of the same species, the musical staged reading is a different animal. I've done a couple previously, both of them requiring about a week's worth of rehearsal, after which several performances were given. One Touch of Venus, produced by American Century Theatre a good while back, was great fun, and was even reviewed by an online theatre critic. I also had a swell time in 1776, which was sponsored by the Smithsonian, and anchored the inaugural festivities surrounding the reopening of the National Portrait Gallery.

Parade, as I said, was a bit different, in that it was to be performed only once, before an invited audience of wealthy muckity-mucks. We did all of our rehearsing on the third floor of the Church of the Epiphany, several blocks away from the theatre, in a creaky but roomy space which Ford's uses for such purposes. (Ford's has recently completed a multi-million dollar renovation, but as inevitably happens when theatre construction is put in the hands of non-theatre folk such as the Dept of Parks or whoever it is that funded that renovation, they overlooked a CRUCIAL element of producing live theatre: a rehearsal space. So all Ford's productions begin life in the attic of a church.)

This reading was important enough that the theatre imported several New York types to lead the Parade. Steve Rosen and Jill Paice headed the cast, playing the husband and wife at the center of the story. They are both accomplished actors with substantial credits; Steve recently played Benny in the Broadway revival of Guys and Dolls, and Jill ended a successful run in The 39 Steps. If we had undergone a full rehearsal process, there would have been time to chat up these two; I would love to hear, for example, some stories of Jill's experience playing Scarlett in the disastrous musical version of Gone With the Wind which happened in London a few years ago. Anyway, our director here was Jeff Calhoun, one of the major musical theatre director/choreographers in the country (among other work, he was responsible for that Big River with the sign language).

Parade is a true story, and takes place in Atlanta in 1913-15. I grew up in Atlanta and had never heard this story, but it is apparently a darkly kept part of the city's history. It concerns a Brooklyn-born accountant, Leo Frank, who settled in Atlanta for a job, and married a local girl. He felt like an outsider, as he was Jewish as well as a Yankee. (This play was written by the same guy who wrote Driving Miss Daisy and Last Night of the Ballyhoo, so he knows a bit about being Jewish in the South.) A teenaged factory worker (a girl named Mary Phagan) is found dead, and Leo is convicted of her murder. Sentenced to hang, his appeals reach the Georgia governor, who becomes suspicious of the testimony given at the trial, and after investigation, commutes Frank's sentence to imprisonment, rather than execution.

The locals will have none of it, and they abduct him from prison one night, and lynch him.

Happy story, eh? Somehow, this period of American history was overlooked by my teachers in suburban Atlanta.

Anyway, we spent five days in the barn-like rehearsal hall, which was ringing with some of the best musical voices in town. Our cast of 16 was peppered with Helen Hayes award winners and nominees, including Eleasha Gamble, who just won this year's award for her performance in The Civil War (a production directed by our leader Jeff Calhoun, who also received a nom for his work, as did the ensemble and the production; I wrote about what I learned from seeing The Civil War a while back). Chris Sizemore was also in that show, and he kicked off our reading with an opening number which took the roof off the joint. My cohort from Man of La Mancha, Tom Simpson, lent his bass-baritone to the role of the prosecuting attorney, and Kevin McAllister handled a string of showstoppers.

I was pretty outclassed by this group of legitimate voices, but I tried to hold my own as the week of rehearsals progressed. I was playing a couple of nice roles: the cop who arrested Leo Frank, and Leo's defense attorney. It was that last role that placed me center stage for the climactic courtroom scene, where I could watch the dynamic work Steve Rosen was doing in the role of Mr. Frank.

As is common with staged readings, the whole cast sat onstage throughout the performance. We were placed in a semi-circle, and approached the free-standing mics whenever we had a scene or song to deliver. I was seated next to another HH award winner, Stephen Gregory Smith, who was stealing his scenes (in a good way) as a reporter whose career takes off due to the Frank trial, and on my other side was Jenna Coker-Jones, who is going to win next year's HH award for her performance in Ford's current Little Shop (her husband Chris might win, too; he also participated in our reading, delivering a couple of numbers in a clear, crisp tenor which makes raspy baritones like me want to get a gun).

On Sunday, we had a final runthrough at the rehearsal hall before walking over to the theatre to give our 4 PM performance. Now, I've been in Ford's many a time, even after the recent renovation, but always as an audience member. I had never stepped on the stage. Until Sunday.

As I sat and faced the audience, I felt a thrill which I used to feel every single time I stepped onstage. I don't know if it's age or experience or what, but I have not felt that true elation about being on a stage in quite a while.

Sunday, that feeling was back. I was performing on one of the most famous stages in the world, with Lincoln's box, decorated in flags, looking down upon us.

I'm going to try to remember that feeling the next time I step out onto the stage of a dinky little black box theatre to perform for a few dozen people. It is the reason I chose this life.