Michael Philip O’Brien, Barrymore Award winner: “There’s something wonderful in knowing what musical theater can do, just how poignant and powerful the art form can be.”

by Rita Charleston

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the trial of Leo Frank, a Jewish factory manager accused of the rape and murder of a young girl. Perhaps to mark the event or to recall a part of American history at its darkest, the Arden Theatre Company opens its 26th season with “Parade,” the award-winning recounting of that event, now through Nov. 3.

Based a true story set in 1913 Atlanta, Georgia, “Parade” raised issues of anti-Semitism and social justice, eventually leading to the founding of the Anti-Defamation League. Michael Philip O’Brien, 33, takes on three roles in this production — first as a young Confederate soldier singing “Old Red Hills of Home,” then 50 years later as an old Confederate soldier singing the same song, and finally as Tom Watson, editor of the zealot newspaper, the Jeffersonian. O’Brien describes Watson as a vicious anti-Semite and ultra-religious Christian who covered the trial.

“Playing in something that actually happened,” said O’Brien, “can be complicated for an actor, but I think Terry Nolen (the Arden’s producing artistic director) made it easier for the actors. He told us we were not cast because we were exactly like the characters we’re playing but because there was something about each of us he felt could bring these characters to life. And so he focused strongly on not trying to create impressions of these people as much as allowing us to bring our own passions to the roles.”

O’Brien, who graduated from Hatboro-Horsham High School but now lives in Roxborough, has found it easy to bring passion to any role he was called on to play since he set his heart on performing. “When I was about 10 years old, I got a part at the Walnut Street Theater in ‘Jesus Christ Superstar,’ and my parents were very supportive. There was no doubt they were interested in letting me do whatever it was I wanted to do.”

And so, with that all-important parental support, O’Brien went off to study acting and musical theater at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. After graduation he returned to Philly and began working seriously at his chosen career. Wanting to be involved in all aspects of that career, he founded the 11th Hour Theater Company along with his sister, Megan.

As a performer, he has continued to work at numerous theaters through the area. He’s also been nominated for three Barrymore Awards for Outstanding Leading Actor in a Musical, winning the award in 2009 for his performance in 11th Hour’s production of “Avenue X.” The 11th Hour Company itself has garnered over 30 Barrymore Award nominations, including back-to-back wins for Outstanding Ensemble in a Musical.

“But playing these roles in ‘Parade’ has quickly become one of my favorite things,” O’Brien said. “There’s something wonderful in knowing what musical theater can do, just how poignant and powerful the art form can be.”

And this play especially seems to fit that description. “I feel this production is something that relates very well to today’s events. We are still having to deal with these types of issues in our society, such as issues of people not accepting other people because of their beliefs or choice of partners or whatever. So there is still a lot of ignorance in people who are not informed.”

Dealing with issues and bringing them to the surface for audiences to examine is something that brings joy to O’Brien, who insists that is one of the best things about acting. “Just the idea of being able to do something that can move people, even motivate them to think differently and hopefully leave the theater after two hours on a journey that might make a difference is absolutely amazing.”

Single ticket prices for “Parade” are $36-$48, with discounts available for seniors, students, military and educators. For more information, call the Arden box office at 215-922-1122.