Chicago Theatre Review
Prejudice and Injustice in Georgia
Parade – Boho Theatre Company
Leo Frank was, according to historical records and as judged by his portrayal in this 1999 Tony-winning musical, the innocent and tragic object of prejudice and bigotry in the early 20th century. That the characters and incidents depicted in Alfred Uhry and Jason Robert Brown’s theatrical collaboration were real makes this play particularly gut-wrenching and somewhat difficult to watch. In addition, audiences unfamiliar with this musical may leave the theatre shocked and dissatisfied because the show doesn’t have a happy ending. It’s not a giddy whodunit, like “The Mystery of Edwin Drood,” in which the culprit is revealed in the final scene and justice is served. It’s based upon real life.
Hal Prince’s original production, which earned enthusiastic critical reviews, but lukewarm reception from the public, played only a few months on Broadway. The production earned Tony Awards for Uhry’s book and Brown’s first major musical score, as well as every major Drama Desk Award that year, including for Outstanding Musical. The show, much like Brown’s “The Last Five Years,” has become a cult favorite, especially among younger theatergoers, and it’s enjoyed continued success in a National Tour, a West End production, as well as in many college and regional theatres.
The musical dramatizes the incidents surrounding factory manager Leo Frank’s arrest, trial and subsequent mob lynching for supposedly raping and killing 14-year-old Mary Phagan, an employee at his Atlanta pencil plant. With the Civil War ending 50 years earlier, Americans in 1915 were making an effort to be less prejudicial toward African Americans; however, bigots found other groups to become their scapegoats for community atrocities.
Leo Frank was a Yankee Jewish businessman from New York who, somewhat reluctantly, accepted a managerial position in Atlanta, Georgia. Although his marriage to Lucille, a southern belle with pedigree, should’ve provided Frank with a boost into Atlanta society, he wasn’t particularly well-liked by his co-workers and didn’t enjoy a very wide social circle. His relationship with both his wife and his employees was considered cool, at best. When Mary Phagan’s mutilated body was discovered in his factory’s basement, in spite of evidence pointing toward two of his black employees, Leo Frank was arrested and brought to trial.
The trial’s sensational treatment by news reporter Britt Craig and conservative editor Tom Watson of the Jeffersonian, the determination of prosecuting attorney Hugh Dorsey, who had his own political aspirations, and spreading antisemitism that seemed to be consuming the south guaranteed that Frank would be unjustly found guilty. Thanks to Lucille’s intervention, however, Georgia Governor John Slaton finally realized the miscarriage of justice, that had shocked the rest of the nation, and commuted Leo’s sentence, from death to life in prison. However, a percentage of the public was enraged by this seemingly merciful move and Frank was kidnapped from his cell in his bedclothes, taken to forest near Mary Phagan’s house and hung.
A musical populated by so many unlikable characters and portraying such a heinous crime, and peppered with so much prejudice and injustice, is difficult to bring to life. Director Linda Fortunato has succeeded by staging her production with care, focusing primarily on the ever-developing relationship between Leo and Lucille. The difficulty is that Leo often comes off as a trifle too cool. Clearly Frank sees everyone in Atlanta as his inferiors, which understandably makes him unpopular. However, he shows little nervousness during his trial or even a sense that his life’s in danger. This, coupled with Leo’s curt relationship with his wife, generally makes the man unsympathetic amid all the turmoil.
Ms. Fortunato has made the most, however, of the small playing area and Patrick Ham’s clean, economical street scene. The designer’s cleverly housed Kevin Reeks‘ talented, five-member orchestra, audible and visible through the open windows, on the top floor of the building. He’s also managed to keep scene changes to a minimum. The dilemma facing this director is that, without a happy ending and so much hatred portrayed, there’s no clear-cut villain on whom to pin the crimes. The temptation in this musical is to steer the focus toward one of the other characters. To Ms. Fortunato’s credit, she hasn’t done this; the director’s left it up to audiences to decide whether Leo Frank was actually guilty, or if Mary’s would-be boyfriend Frankie Epps, the janitor and ex-con Jim Conley or even the night watchman Newt Lee may have committed the crime.
Jim DeSelm is appropriately staunch and moody as Leo Frank. He eventually sheds his shell in Act II, as his character finally comes to appreciate and rediscover his love for his wife through her efforts to safe Leo’s life. His co-star Sarah Bockel is terrific as Lucille Frank. With a beautiful voice that matches the elegance and class she brings to this role, Ms. Bockel is everything this character should be. Mr. DeSelm and Ms. Bockel share a lovely duet in Act I entitled “Leo at Work/What am I Waiting For?” In Act II the actress impresses with “Do It Alone,” and her duets with Mr. DeSelm, the moving “This is Not Over Yet” and their 11th hour ballad, “All the Wasted Time,” beautifully embody the couple’s emotional arc.
The rest of the cast competently bring their unpleasant characters to full life. Cole Doman is convincing as Mary’s adolescent suitor, Frankie Epps; as janitor Jim Conley, Eric Lewis is terrific, especially in his “Blues: Feel the Rain Fall;” Angela Alise and Lorenzo Rush, Jr. provide some much-appreciated humor as two African American servants with their rollicking “A Rumblin‘ and a Rollin;’” Russell Alan Rowe and lovely Christa Buck nicely portray the comfortably affluent Governor and Mrs. Slaton; Michael Potsic and Nathan Carroll hit all the right notes as despicable journalists, Tom Watson and Britt Craig; and Scott Danielson, as Hugh Dorsey, creates an unlikable, prosecuting attorney supporting his own agenda.
A musical that doesn’t offer audience a happy ending or provide a fulfilling resolution to the story’s conflict is a difficult pill to swallow and a hard show to sell. Strong performances, stirring music and a conviction to objectively portray this dark chapter in American history makes BoHo’s 10th season finale an impressive entry to the Autumn theatre season. Some audiences will welcome a chance to embrace this cult favorite; others will question its validity as a musical. But one thing is certain: BoHo Theatre has proven that, once again, this is a storefront company that has the chops to tell a story that moves, inspires and entertains.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented October 18-November 16 by BoHo Theatre Company at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave., Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling 773-975-8150 or by going to www.BoHoTheatre.com.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.