“Don’t rain on my parade,” Barbra Streisand famously sang in “Funny Girl.”
But that’s exactly what Metropolitan Ensemble Theatre has endured during rehearsals for its final production of the season, the musical “Parade,” opening this week.
Plagued by a leaking roof and walls, the midtown venue flooded during the storms of the past few weeks, with water six inches deep at times. Buckets are now perpetually scattered around the building, and the theater hopes to get the roof fixed soon.
Two previous set designs included traditional furniture, but, after the threat of water damage, director Karen Paisley decided on a simple, bare stage — because “it’s not about furniture.”
“It’s a funny way of how we arrived at it,” she said. “It feels like it was supposed to be that way, like it was really supposed to happen like that.”
The raw design mimics the raw, emotional three weeks of rehearsals. “Parade” tackles religious intolerance, political injustice, media sensationalism and racism head-on. The 1999 Tony winner is another story of religious and racial intolerance in Atlanta by Alfred Uhry (“Driving Miss Daisy”). The music and lyrics are by Jason Robert Brown, who, coincidentally, also wrote music and lyrics for “The Bridges of Madison County,” now playing at Starlight Theatre.
Based on a true story, “Parade” follows Leo Frank, a Jewish man from New York, and Lucille, his Southern wife, who live in Atlanta, still reeling from the Civil War. In 1913, Leo is convicted of murdering a young factory worker, although evidence points to his innocence. In a town biased against him because of his heritage, Leo, with Lucille’s help, attempts to find justice.
Paisley had never seen the show — and wondered why. Born in North Carolina, she said she questioned whether other directors thought it was too scary or difficult to produce. But, in the end, “it had to be done,” she said, partly because of the history behind the characters, who wage a difficult fight.
“Sometimes you play the heroic card, and sometimes it doesn’t work out, which makes heroism kind of a hard thing,” she said. “So why do (the play)? I think it’s important.”
While the musical dives into darker themes, a slow-burning romance and a message of hope motivate the characters and the actors portraying them. Leo and Lucille, previously strangers in a cautious marriage, fall in love amid the tragedies of the play.
“She really comes into her own in a time where women were really to be seen and not heard as much,” said Kimberly Horner, who plays Lucille. “She finds strength and courage in a time where she could have easily just walked away. It’s amazing that she stood with Leo and fought with him. It’s so exciting to portray someone who’s ahead of her time.”
Vaughan Harrison, who plays the factory janitor Jim Conley, said stepping into the shoes of an African-American character after the Civil War was eye-opening. He had to learn simple nuances, such as not looking white cast members in the eye for too long, to better represent the history of the time.
“It’s really really hard, as an actor, to portray someone in a different historical period where your character is not the winner,” Paisley said.
Said Harrison: “It’s really interesting watching (the other actors) get into their character and watching them portray their character, watching them interact with white cast members.
“Systemic racism is the way of life. What keeps you going in a system in which you know you cannot advance? I think what this play has taught me is that there’s something that transcends hope that keeps you going on. Something will get better.”
Also new this week:
▪ “The Bridges of Madison County,” through June 19 at Starlight Theater. Based on the novel by Robert James Waller, this musical follows a brief but passionate affair between an unfulfilled housewife and a photographer on assignment shooting the famous covered bridges in Iowa. See KCStarlight.com.
▪ “Twelfth Night,” through July 3 at Southmoreland Park. Heart of America Shakespeare Festival presents this classic tale of mistaken identities and secret love. Viola disguises herself as her twin brother after being shipwrecked on a foreign island, but falls in love with Duke Orsino, who is in love with the countess Olivia, who in turn is in love with Viola disguised as her brother. The play inspired the movies “She’s the Man” and “Shakespeare in Love.” See KCShakes.org.
▪ “Madagascar — A Musical Adventure,” through Aug. 7 at the Coterie Theatre in Crown Center. Based on the Dreamworks movie of the same name (which was co-directed by KC native Eric Darnell), the musical makes its world premiere as part of the Coterie’s Lab for New Family Musicals. Audiences will see familiar characters Marty the zebra, Alex the lion, Gloria the hippo and Melman the giraffe — and don’t forget about the lovable plotting penguins. See TheCoterie.org
▪ “Sing Along the Road Again,” June 21-30 at Paul Mesner Puppets, 1006 E. Linwood Blvd. Road trip partners John Paul George and his singing dog Ringo perform songs “about places they’ve been, things they’ve seen, and even other modes of transportation,” according to the website. See PaulMesnerPuppets.org.