Murder, lynchings and racism aren’t generally topics that come to mind when you think of musical theater.
But a new production in Portland, starring three Vancouver teens, aims to illuminate a dark — and true — injustice in America’s past.
“Parade,” written by Jason Robert Brown, is based on the tale of Leo Frank, a Jewish factory superintendant in Georgia.
In 1913, Frank was wrongly convicted of murdering a 13-year-old girl and in 1915 was lynched after the Georgia governor commuted his sentence.
“It’s absolutely based on a true story,” said Paul Angelo, director of the production. “The conviction was based on anti-semitism. It was a huge media frenzy.”
Ashlee Waldbauer, a 17-year-old senior at Prairie High School, stars as the murdered girl, Mary Phagan.
“At the beginning I’m myself, but then I get killed off,” Waldbauer said. “That’s not the end of my character, though. I come back in flashback form during the trial stage of the production.”
Skyview High School students Aimee Martin and Hannah Lauren Wilson both also appear in the musical play.
The three teens have known each other since they were little, working in Vancouver community theater productions. But this show, put on by Staged!, is a bigger step toward their dreams of becoming professional actors, Waldbauer said.
“We haven’t done a show in Portland together before, and it’s great to see how we’ve all matured and grown and matured as artists,” Waldbauer said. “It’s great to get to spend some time together.”
The teens are part of the Staged! Conservatory training program for young people interested in careers in theater. And this show provides a lot of complexity for the actors, Waldbauer said.
“It’s something you might not expect from a musical,” Waldbauer said. “It’s a darker show. It’s deep. It makes you think. And especially with everything that’s going on in Ferguson (Mo.) now, it’s really relevant.”
Putting something that dark to music might seem like an impossible task, but Angelo said Jason Robert Brown did a brilliant job.
“He’s often touted as the new Stephen Sondheim,” Angelo said. “And it certainly is interesting musical fodder. The heart-wrenching story is presented with this incredibly complex music that doesn’t take away, but adds to, the power of the show.”
Waldbauer plans to continue to pursue a career in musical theater after the production ends. She’s auditioning for 18 theater colleges around the country to continue her education after she finishes her last year at Prairie High School.
“I just love getting out there and sharing a piece of a larger story,” Waldbauer said. “Entertaining people is fun. It’s a really good feeling when people enjoy what you do.”
“Parade” runs Sept. 20 to Oct. 12 at the Brunish Theatre, 1111 S.W. Broadway, in Portland. Tickets range from $15 to $31. Visit www.portland5.com/brunish-theatre/events/parade for details.
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