Fell's Point takes on a difficult subject

THE BALTIMORE SUN

You can't fault Fell's Point Corner Theatre when it comes to ambition. The little theater has launched its season with the Maryland premiere of a musical that has: 1) a cast of 35, 2) a highly intricate musical score, and 3) a plot that tells a dire true story of child murder, rampant anti-Semitism and a lynching in early 20th-century Atlanta.

The musical is Parade, an account by playwright Alfred Uhry (Driving Miss Daisy) and songwriter Jason Robert Brown of the trial of Leo Frank, a Jewish businessman accused of murdering a 13-year-old factory girl named Mary Phagan in 1913.

It's a difficult subject for a musical, and the Broadway production met with wildly divergent reviews (Variety called it "the feel-bad musical of the year"), closing after only a few months. However, those who admired the show - this critic among them - received some vindication when it won posthumous 1999 Tony Awards for best book and score.

But if the musical presented tough challenges on Broadway, it presents major hurdles on the community theater level, and despite an often valiant effort, Fell's Point Corner is unable to surmount most of those hurdles.

The trouble begins with the first strains of the overly synthesized, over-amplified recorded score, which drowns out all but the largest choral numbers. Those, regrettably, err in the opposite direction - they're nearly deafening.

This is all the more unfortunate because, within its significant historical and social context, Parade is essentially the story of two people - husband and wife Leo and Lucille Frank. An awkward, seemingly mismatched couple, Leo and Lucille come to know, respect and ultimately love each other in the course of the gruesome events that overtake their lives.

At Fell's Point Corner, these complex characters are played with sensitivity by a real-life engaged couple, Matthew Bowerman and Claire Carberry. Bowerman makes us care for a character who starts out cold and unapproachable, and Carberry's sonorous voice is one of the loveliest onstage.

Sensitivity and loveliness are in much demand with material this blatant. But under the hard-driving stage direction of Bill Kamberger and musical direction of Jane Rubak, nuanced numbers such as Lucille's moving solo, "You Don't Know This Man," and the couple's poignant duet, "All the Wasted Time," get short shrift.

Still, a number of notable supporting performances shine through: King Hinton as the somber night watchman who is also initially arrested for the murder; Josh Singer as a jittery, opportunistic reporter; Scott Woltz as a vengeful teen-age friend of murdered Mary Phagan; and Jennifer Kersey as sweet Mary herself. The ensemble singing by the massive cast is also impressive, albeit overpowering.

With child abductions and murders - not to mention racism and anti-Semitism - once again dominating the headlines, Parade would appear to be especially timely. But the show's greatness lies in the way it uses a love story and soaring score to make these themes resound.

The problem with Fell's Point Corner's production is that it allows the size and importance of the themes to predominate; the artistry of this powerful piece of musical theater seems merely secondary.

Show times at Fell's Point Corner, 251 S. Ann St., are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, and 2 p.m. Sundays, through Oct. 20. Tickets are $15. For more information, call 410-276-7837.

Award for Center Stage

Center Stage has been chosen one of seven theaters in the country to receive an AT&T;: OnStage award for the 2002-2003 season. The $100,000 grant is earmarked for Lynn Nottage's Intimate Apparel and will be shared with California's South Coast Repertory, which is co-producing the play about a black seamstress in 1905 New York.

Intimate Apparel, which received a staged reading in Center Stage's First Look series last season, will premiere at the theater in February and have a subsequent run at South Coast Rep in April. AT&T; is the corporate sponsor of the production.

Center Stage last received an AT&T; award in 1991 for Eric Overmyer's The Heliotrope Bouquet by Scott Joplin and Louis Chauvin.

Farewell, AXIS

Although I was away when AXIS Theatre closed its doors, I wanted to offer a few fond words of farewell. This gutsy company gave Baltimore audiences their first glimpses of the work of such cutting-edge playwrights as Nicky Silver, Constance Congdon, Mac Wellman and this year's Pulitzer Prize winner, Suzan-Lori Parks.

Like any community theater, AXIS' work was not uniformly polished, but it was almost always intriguing and different. And at times it soared - literally in the case of artistic director Brian Klaas' 1998 production of Angels in America. Other triumphs included the small-scale musical The Last Session (1997) and Tim Blake Nelson's Eye of God (1994), a psychological thriller so creepy, just thinking of it induces chills.

Even little theater can be expensive, however. In the end, Klaas says AXIS fell victim to a combination of leftover debt, slow ticket and subscription sales in the wake of Sept. 11, and the loss of two major donors.

But though AXIS may be gone, the spirit behind it remains strong and may resurface in another form. Klaas - who works by day as a senior systems designer for the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health - says, "Some of us, myself included, are working on setting up a new organization to see if we can make some better business decisions. In the fall of 2003, hopefully, we'll be able to start producing again."

Tall order

Baltimore actress Vivienne Shub played the lead role in a staged reading of Three Tall Women attended by the playwright, Edward Albee, this past weekend. Before the performance, which took place at Middlebury College in Vermont, Shub, who is 5-foot-1, told the playwright, "I wish I could ask the audience to just use their imagination and give me 12 more inches of height." Albee replied, "It's in the actress."

After the reading, Shub said, the playwright congratulated her on her performance and commented, "You remembered what I said!" The actress told us she could feel her neck getting longer by the moment.

'Whisper' honored

Mark Scharf's The Whispers of Saints was named best play and best production at the Baltimore Playwrights Festival's annual awards ceremony, held at Center Stage on Monday. The play was selected by 14 judges who work in local theater and education. One of those judges was also honored at the ceremony. A lifetime achievement award was bestowed on local actor/playwright Thurston Griggs, a former festival secretary and board member.

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