In 1913, Leo Frank, superintendent of The National Pencil Factory in Atlanta, Georgia, was arrested for the rape and murder of 13 year-old employee Mary Phagan. Coerced or blackmailed by district attorney Hugh Dorsey (later governor of Georgia and then a judge) and anti-Semitic newspaper publisher Tom Watson (later a Georgia senator), an entire community seems to have lied on the stand about Frank’s character and actions.
Frank was summarily tried, convicted, and sentenced to hang. Two years later, dogged efforts of some influential northerners managed to get his sentence commuted to life. Vigilantes then lynched him. Investigation and trial led to reemergence of the defunct Klu Klux Klan and establishment of the Jewish Civil Rights organization, the Anti-Defamation league.
Erin Rose Doyle (Mary Phagan), Jake Pedersen (Frankie)
Director Michael Arden visited the site of Frank’s lynching in Marietta. “There’s a sad little plaque…” Arden took the photograph that greets us as we file in to the theater.
It’s Confederate Memorial Day: a cultural holiday observed in several Southern U.S. states since the end of the Civil War in remembrance of the estimated 258,000 Confederate soldiers who died in military service. Bunting creates the illusion of benign Americana. Multiple confederate flags remind us of the great divide that not only didn’t end with the “War Between the States,” but, as reflected by current politics, remains an open sore into which some prominent politicians insist on pouring gasoline.
A fish out of water, Brooklyn raised, Cornell educated Frank can’t understand why his neighbors celebrate a war they lost. Married into a prominent, southern Jewish family (lineage founded the first synagogue in Atlanta), he took a job offered at a company co-owned by his uncle, but never felt at home. Unlike his unassuming depiction in the musical, “Leo Frank was a confident leader and active socialite at college, cosmopolitan, and well traveled.” (The American Mercury.) Perhaps book writer Alfred Uhry felt a confident, gregarious man would seem less a victim.
Jay Armstrong Johnson (Britt Craig) and the Company
Historically, Frank was involved with his adopted city’s Jewish community and elected president of the Atlanta chapter of the B’nai B’rith. (The organization combats antisemitism and Holocaust denial and advocates for human rights.) The 1999 Tony Award winning play leaves out this activism. Frank is portrayed as an outsider, a Yankee; under suspicion for college, clothing, speech, and the position he holds. Lucille Frank (Micaela Diamond) chides him for using Yiddish, indicating awareness of prejudice. Religion is added ammunition. Perhaps Uhry didn’t want to clue us in too early.
Mary Phagan (Erin Rose Doyle) promises to meet Frankie (Jake Pedersen) at the movies after she picks up salary owed her at the factory. Pedersen acts convincingly, sings well and moves like a dancer. Frank (Ben Platt) pays the girl. On the way out, Mary turns and wishes him “Happy Memorial day.” Her balloon flies loose. Next thing we see is police at the Frank’s door. “There’s been a tragedy.”
Howard McGillin (Judge Roan), Danielle Lee Greaves (Minne), Paul Alexander Nolan (Hugh Dorsey)
Governor Slaton (Sean Allan Krill) decides the case must be quickly closed. “Another Nigra is not enough this time,” he tells District Attorney Hugh Dorsey (Paul Alexander Nolan). That leaves Leo Frank. The trial is chilling. Mary floats above on a swing. Krill delivers the solid portrait of a man who’ll eventually trade expediency for integrity. Nolan is wonderfully slippery á la Billy Flynn (from the musical Chicago) without the lightness.
Head and secondary Black janitors Newt Lee (Eddie Cooper) and Jim Conley (Alex Joseph Grayson, whose chain gang number still resonates), are perfunctorily questioned. Historians now believe the latter to be the perpetrator. Additionally asked to testify are the Frank’s maid, Minnie (Danielle Lee Greaves) and three factory girls who recite what they’ve been told to say verbatim, like parrots. “Children tell the truth,” the DA declares. African Americans are pitted against Whites. Dorsey blackmails Conley. Reporter Britt Craig (Jay Armstrong Johnson) sensationalizes the trail with “Real Big News.”
Alex Joseph Grayson (Jim Conley)
As if he didn’t have sufficient impetus, Dorsey is approached by antisemitic newspaper publisher Tom Watson (Manoel Feliciano) who dangles the governorship. Though today’s media disseminates false information with rapidity and scope unheard of in the early 1900s, the “news” has long had power. Public opinion can be easily swayed. And was. Frank’s commutation made no difference to citizens who read bold type and were steeped in fear of outsiders. “You Don’t Know This Man,” Lucille sings. She was 27 when her husband was murdered.
Fine work by Jason Robert Brown includes music influenced by John Philip Sousa, minstrel shows, ragtime, spirituals and Stephen Foster. That he’s also the lyricist offers grist to the actors, lots of them. Rarely does one see a large cast musical where so many peripheral characters get solos – two servants at the governor’s mansion and a retired judge? These songs are less effective. As Parade was Brown’s first Broadway show, one can imagine over enthusiasm. Tom Murray’s orchestrations are lush.
Photo of the trial of Leo Frank, shot on July 28, 1913. Prosecutor Hugh Dorsey, standing at left, is examining witness Newt Lee, at right. Leo Frank who is seated in the centre, staring at the camera. The jury are in the foreground with their backs to the camera. Also in the picture are Lucille Frank, Leo Frank’s wife, and Mrs Ray Frank, his mother. (Public Domain)
Book writer Alfred Uhry grew up in Atlanta. His great-uncle owned the pencil factory run by Leo Frank. The librettist tells this daunting story in a way that makes it watchable, even, with Brown, entertaining. Oddly Leo Frank may be the least well drawn character, though Lucille takes a close second with only a suggested trip to Savannah to avoid the trial showing what she went through. (She stays.) A few more specifics would help the two feel more like the people they were and less like examples.
Michael Arden’s direction is extremely imaginative. Replay of what occurred wisely doesn’t include the murder. At one point in the trial Frank enacts/ mouths Conley’s spoken testimony. When the governor interviews Conley on a chain gang, dialogue and song intertwine deftly. A tea dance employed to break tension smartly illustrates avoidance. When the large cast assembles, they do so with artful composition. The only thing that doesn’t work is the messy depiction of Frank’s hanging.
Surprisingly, Leo Frank doesn’t dominate this story which instead centers on bigotry and injustice. Ben Platt makes us believe both the character’s difficulty in absorbing the situation and his coming around to appreciate Lucille. His appealing voice has grown mature since the break out role in Evan Hanson.
Micaela Diamond (Lucille Frank), Ben Platt (Leo Frank)
As Lucille Frank, Micaela Diamond embodies frustration, determination and love – in that order. Signs of the last earlier on would help credibility. Diamond has apt gravitas and an engaging voice.
In 1922, Pierre Van Paassen, a reporter at The Atlanta Constitution discovered that Leo Frank’s dental records didn’t match teeth marks found on the victim’s body. Afraid it might stir up further prejudice, the Jewish community prevailed upon editors to cancel an intended series. Seventy years later, in 1986, Georgia posthumously pardoned Frank because the state failed to protect him.
According to The New York Times, there were 3,697 antisemitic incidents in the U.S. last year, the most since the Anti-Defamation League started keeping records in 1979. Increase of bigoted behavior is undoubtedly part of the impetus for Parade’s revival. To watch “helplessly” as the situation unspools is a microcosm of reading the news.
Costumes (Susan Hilferty) are accurate to period, class and personality as well as being aesthetically appealing in terms of muted color, texture and sharing the stage.
Lighting by Heather Gilbert is skillfully manipulative. This is the third time during the season, however, we’re blinded by blasts of light in order, one presumes, to shock. Spots linger before our eyes. There must be another way.
Scenic designer Dane Laffrey presents a multi-use platform with furniture and lamps that change scene to scene. Bunting and flags are well employed. Production design by Sven Ortel, which include evocative projections of Marietta and photographs of those people involved in the original incident, emphasize culpability. This is not a folktale.
Opening: Micaela Diamond (Lucille Frank), Ben Platt (Leo Frank)
Photos by Joan Marcus
Music and Lyrics by Jason Robert Brown
Book by Alfred Uhry
Co-Conceived by Harold Prince
Directed by Michael Arden
Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre
242 West 45th Street