Chicago Theatre Review
A Dark Chapter in American History
Parade – Writers Theatre
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 early 20th century America. The fact that the characters and incidents depicted in this Alfred Uhry and Jason Robert Brown theatrical collaboration were real people 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 with show-stopping musical numbers. It’s an emotional journey, based upon real life events, and it serves to remind us today that we really haven’t come that far.
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 Outstanding Musical. The show, much like Brown’s “The Last Five Years,” has now
become a cult favorite, especially among younger theatergoers, and has enjoyed continued success in a National Tour, a West End production, as well as through 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 only 50 years earlier, Americans in 1913 were still 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 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, his brusque personality didn’t make him particularly well-liked by his co-workers. Because he was a slave to his work Frank didn’t enjoy a 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 the basement of his factory, in spite of evidence pointing toward two of his black employees, Leo Frank was arrested and brought to trial.
The trial was a doomed exercise from the beginning. It received sensational treatment by newspaper reporters Britt Craig and Tom Watson, the conservative editor of The Jeffersonian. Hugh Dorsey, the determined prosecuting attorney for the case, had his own political aspirations which motivated his actions. To make matters worse, antisemitism seemed to be spreading and consuming the South, guaranteeing that Leo Frank would unjustly be found guilty. Thanks to Lucille Frank’s intervention, Georgia Governor John Slaton finally realized the miscarriage of justice happening in his state 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 a forest near Mary Phagan’s house and hung.
A musical portraying such a heinous crime, populated by many unlikable characters and peppered with so much prejudice and injustice, is difficult. Talented director Gary Griffin, whose work has been enjoyed, not only in Chicago, but at Stratford, the Muny and on Broadway, clearly has another hit with this production. He’s succeeded, first and foremost, by casting this musical with some of Chicago’s finest actor/singers. Griffin has partnered with gifted musical director, Michael Mahler, and exciting choreographer Ericka Mac, to bring this show to life. He’s staged his production with precision and care, focusing primarily on the relationship between Leo and Lucille. The story plays out seamlessly upon Scott Davis’ fluid, multilevel scenic design. Griffin’s managed to keep scene changes to a minimum and they seem to occur magically. Lit with finesse by Christine Binder, costumed with period authenticity by Mara Blumenfeld and sporting wig and hair designs by Sam Umstead, this production is gorgeous.
The difficulty Griffin has had to overcome is that Leo often comes off as a trifle too cool. Mr. Frank sees everyone in Atlanta as his inferiors, which understandably makes him unpopular and not an easy character to cheer for. However, under Griffin’s expert direction, we see glimmers of the real man within Leo Frank. He exhibits an ever-so-slight nervousness during his trial as he begins to sense that his life’s in danger. In Act II, Frank comes to appreciate the love and devotion of Lucille. Up to this point, Leo’s curt relationship with his wife makes the man unsympathetic amid all the turmoil surrounding him. But as this show progresses under Griffin’s direction, Leo Frank changes, as does our empathy for his life.
Matt Deitchman’s talented, nine-member orchestra, audibly balanced between both sides of the backstage, makes Jason Robert Brown’s score simply float on air. One dilemma facing this director is that, despite an unhappy ending and so much hatred portrayed, there’s no clear-cut villain. The temptation is to steer the focus toward one of the supporting characters. To Griffin’s credit, he hasn’t done this; the director’s left it up to audiences to decide whether Leo Frank was actually guilty, or if Mary’s romantic interest, Frankie Epps, the factory janitor and ex-con Jim Conley or even the night watchman, Newt Lee, may have committed the crime. But, unlike many other productions of this musical, the love story between Leo and Lucille Frank takes the spotlight.
Patrick Andrews is all numbers and business in the role of Leo Frank. This talented young actor creates a leading character who’s appropriately staunch and moody, but who eventually softens, appreciating and rediscovering the love for his wife through her efforts to save him. His co-star Brianna Borger is terrific as Lucille Frank, a role she was born to play. With a gorgeous voice that matches the elegance and class she brings to this role, Ms. Borger is perfection. Mr. Andrews and Ms. Borger share a lovely duet entitled “Leo at Work/What am I Waiting For?” In Act II the actress thoroughly impresses with “Do It Alone,” while the couple’s duets, “This is Not Over Yet” and their 11th hour ballad, “All the Wasted Time,” beautifully, melodically convey their emotional arc.
The rest of the cast competently bring their characters to full life. Jake Nicholson, displaying an accomplished, trained voice, is heartbreaking as Mary’s adolescent suitor, Frankie Epps; as janitor Jim Conley, the always terrific Jonathan Butler-Duplessis almost steals the show, especially in his “Blues: Feel the Rain Fall;” Nicole Michelle Haskins and Jonah D. Winston provide some much-appreciated humor as two African American servants, with their rollicking “A Rumblin‘ and a Rollin;’” Derek Hasenstab and lovely McKinley Carter nicely portray the influential and affluent Governor and Mrs. Slaton; Devin DeSantis and Jeff Parker hit all the right notes as journalists, Britt Craig and Tom Watson; and Kevin Gudahl, as prosecuting attorney Hugh Dorsey, creates a despicable man who’ll do and say anything to further his own agenda. Actor/singers Larry Adams, Zoe Nadal, Leryn Turlington and Caroline Heffernan (featured as Mary Phagan) all play multiple roles, and complete this gifted ensemble.
A musical that doesn’t offer its 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. Sensitive direction, strong performances, stirring music and a need to remind us of this dark chapter in American history makes Writers Theatre’s production an impressive offering this season. Some audiences will welcome a chance to embrace this cult favorite; others will discover it anew; still other patrons may question its validity as musical theatre. But one thing is certain: Writers Theatre has once again taken a chance by producing a show that’s moving, inspirational and yet, in spite of everything, thoroughly entertaining.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented May 30-July 2 by Writers Theatre, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe, IL.
Tickets are available by calling the box office at 847-242-6000 or by going to www.writerstheatre.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.