Story: A century ago, 13-year-old factory worker Mary Phagan was murdered at the National Pencil Company in Atlanta during the annual parade honoring Confederate veterans of the Civil War. After initial suspicion was directed toward Newt Lee, the company’s black night watchman who found the body and reported it to police, prosecutors instead set their sights on Leo Frank, the New York-bred Jewish superintendent of the factory.
Frank was indicted and arrested based primarily on the testimony of Jim Conley, an ex-convict who worked as a janitor at National Pencil. Ambitious head prosecutor Hugh Dorsey, solicitor general for the state of Georgia, filled his case with testimonies from various people, including young co-workers of Mary and the maid of Leo and Lucille Frank, which painted the mild, taciturn Frank as an aggressive womanizer. When he quickly was convicted, his defense attorney Luther Rosser began a series of appeals, while Lucille did her own investigation.
Two years later, after all of the appeals had been turned down, Georgia governor Jack Slaton issued a pardon for Frank from the death penalty in exchange for a life sentence. Shortly thereafter, Frank was kidnapped from prison by a gang of men who lynched him in Mary Phagan’s home town of Marietta, Georgia.
Highlights: An egregious event from the not-too-distant past is the most unusual subject of a musical written by Alfred Uhry and Jason Robert Brown. Uhry wrote the book for Parade, which is considered part of his Atlanta Trilogy that includes Driving Miss Daisy and Last Night of Ballyhoo. All three works focus on the Southern Jewish contingent of Atlanta in the 20th century.
Uhry collaborated with composer and lyricist Jason Robert Brown on Parade, which was co-conceived and directed on Broadway by Harold Prince. and won Tony Awards in 1998 for Best Book and Best Score.
Parade is an epic work, similar in scope and style to Ragtime. It’s currently receiving its St. Louis premiere in an ambitious and highly affecting interpretation by R-S Theatrics. It benefits from impeccable direction by R-S artistic director Christina Rios of a sizable but cohesive cast that invests its time and energy most wisely.
Other Info: The outrageous nature of Frank’s trial led to the formation of the Anti-Defamation League as well as, ironically, a resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan. The sprawling, two-act, three-hour work is as much history lesson as musical, grabbing one’s attention immediately and keeping its grip for the play’s duration. Part of that is due to Rios’ expert pacing and maneuvering of her 17-player ensemble, who stage manager Sarah Lynne Holt moves adroitly across the mostly bare stage. A few chairs, a table, a makeshift cell and an impromptu courtroom comprised of furniture moved quickly on and off stage are all that R-S Theatrics requires to tell this sobering and stunning tale.
Brown’s music is highly sophisticated, yet based on traditional folk tunes, soft ballads and simple-sounding melodies that nonetheless blend together in highly moving fashion. The show-stopper, though, is an energy-charged gospel number called That’s What He Said, sung in rousing, raise-the-roof style by Marshall Jennings as the seedy, mendacious Conley. As performed by musical director Leah Luciano and her musicians, Brown’s evocative music comes through at a level that supports the players while never overwhelming them.
Elizabeth Henning’s costumes smartly dress various folks in the attire appropriate for their respective classes as well as the locale, as evidenced by Dorsey’s off-white suit and shoes and Lucille’s finery. Mark Kelley’s sound design adds an ominous touch, as does the lighting designed by Nathan Schroeder.
There are several remarkable performances, led by Pete Winfrey’s stellar portrayal of Frank, a man who never felt comfortable among Jewish residents who seemed more Southern than Jewish, including his wife Lucille. One can discern a palpable unease between Leo and Lucille at the beginning of the show, as etched so well by Winfrey and Jennifer Theby-Quinn. They’re just as capable, though, at showing how the pair’s love grows amidst adversity as each fights to wrong a terrible injustice. Theby-Quinn’s impressive performance has both depth and breadth.
Ken Haller is very strong as the pragmatic prosecutor Dorsey, who’s not above leading witnesses in order to get the verdict he craves for his career. Bradley Behrmann is effective as self-interested reporter Britt Craig, who sees the Frank trial as his ticket to stardom, and Jennings is wonderful as the guileless Conley.
Kay Love’s beautiful voice is demonstrated clearly as Mrs. Phagan on the ballad, My Child Will Forgive Me, while Robert Breig finely etches the contemptible extremist and yellow journalist Tom Watson. Caitlin Mickey, Maggie Murphy and Macia Noorman all shine as a trio of Mary Phagan’s friends and factory workers, while Zach Wachter plays Mary’s wannabe boyfriend Frankie Epps.
Shawn Bowers and Alexis Coleman as Newt and Minnie get the second act off to a spirited start with A Rumblin’ and a Rollin’, a wry commentary on how different reaction might have been had Mary Phagan been black instead of white. Beth Wickenhauser does well in the relatively minor part of Mary, GP Hunsaker ably plays defense attorney Rosser and Derick Smith is solid as weary Judge Roan.
Kevin Hester as Governor Slaton is the production’s weak point, unconvincing in his portrayal both in demeanor and expression, but hopefully he’ll improve.
Parade is a remarkable artistic achievement, and R-S Theatrics’ focused and steady interpretation is an intricate and rewarding presentation.
Company: R-S Theatrics
Venue: Ivory Theatre, 7620 Michigan Avenue
Dates: September 13, 14, 15
Rating: A 4.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of Michael Young