Bailiwick Repertory

An advertisement for the Bailiwick production of Parade offers this quick synopsis: “1913, Atlanta / Leo Frank Is Accused of Murder / Only the Love of One Woman Can Save Him.” Of course, that last bit isn’t true in a literal, mortal sense. A Brooklyn Jew marooned in the jim crow south, where he ran a pencil factory, Frank was accused of murdering Mary Phagan, a 13-year-old employee whose savaged body was found in the factory basement. The sensational nature of the crime dovetailed with political expediency, yellow journalism, Confederate humiliation, and old-fashioned Jew-hatred to make Frank’s guilt or innocence a moot point. He was given a rigged trial and sentenced to hang. When Georgia’s governor, John Slaton, responded to international outrage by commuting Frank’s sentence to life imprisonment, a group of southern gentlemen calling themselves the Knights of Mary Phagan yanked him out of jail and hung him themselves. Some of the Knights were so pleased by the success of this foray into social activism that they were inspired to revive the dormant Ku Klux Klan.

So no, Leo Frank wasn’t actually saved in the sense of being preserved from an early, violent, and unjust death. Apparently nothing and no one could save him from that. The advertisement must mean, then, that he was ennobled spiritually despite his suffering by the love and faith of his wife, Lucille. And sure enough, this surprisingly accurate and often powerful musical by Jason Robert Brown and Driving Miss Daisy author Alfred Uhry dwells at length on Leo’s evolution from uptight bean counter to fulfilled–even passionate–husband as Lucille’s devotion becomes more and more apparent to him.

But Uhry’s book seems to hold out hope that Lucille can do the literal part, too. Though its ending is a matter of history, Parade is structured like a suspense narrative: we’re apparently supposed to think of ourselves as being left up in the air, wondering what will become of Leo, until his awful fate is revealed at the end of act two. It’s as if Sophocles had thought his Athenian audience would get a real shock out of the news about Oedipus and his mother.

And yet maybe Uhry is right to assume that we don’t know how the story goes. A friend of mine just told me about a conversation she had with a woman in her 20s who’d never heard of Roe v. Wade or Brown v. Board of Education. If it’s possible for an educated American adult living in the first quarter of the 21st century to be unaware of those little contretemps, then I don’t suppose we can expect a 90-year-old lynching to be seared into anybody’s consciousness, however important it seemed at the time.

But for those of us familiar with the Frank saga (and like it or not, that now includes you), Uhry’s approach has the effect of a foregone conclusion played out over the course of an entire evening. We walk in knowing how the press will work little Mary’s murder, how anti-Semites will demagogue it, how the prosecutor will distort it, how the crowds will turn it into bile. To tell the truth, we don’t really even need the particular details of the Frank affair: the process has been so well defined through repetition–from the Haymarket executions to the trials of the Scottsboro Boys to the Hollywood Ten and on to Guantanamo Bay–that it has the certainty of the stations of the cross.

And so the coy pretense that Frank has a future becomes oppressive after a while. You wish Uhry had just laid it all out from the start, acknowledging the material for what it is: a tragedy unfolding, horrific in its inevitability as much as its injustice.

Oddly, fortunately, this strategic misstep can’t kill Parade. If Uhry’s book seems contrived as a polemic, it’s vivid as romance–the unlikely love affair between a husband and his wife. It also packs considerable wallop on a moment-to-moment basis, thanks in large part to Brown’s score, with its surfeit of big, thrumming production numbers. Backed by a cast of no fewer than 30 open-throated souls, director David Zak, musical director Alan Bukowiecki, and choreographer Brenda Didier are able to make full use of those numbers, creating a series of anthemic passages alternately stirring and comic and dark. Not all the passages work–Didier’s attempt to approximate the hard-bitten look and rhythm of a chain gang, for instance, comes across ridiculously as a kind of psych-ward version of musical chairs. But expressions of collective malevolence like “Where Will You Stand When the Flood Comes?” are chillingly effective.

Amy Arbizzani moves effectively from aristocratic dumpling to sexy advocate as Lucille Frank. Nicholas Foster has the talent for Leo, but not the Yiddishe ta’am: the Jewish flavor. For all that he looks like the man he portrays, Foster never manages to pass for him–which is a terrible shame, because it seems to me this role would become a thousand times more dangerous in the hands of an actor who could embody Leo’s otherness.

In fact, most of the cast could stand to be more dangerous. They’re so sweet-faced and good-natured in their motley way that it’s often hard to see them as the convicts and guards and nefarious manipulators they’re occasionally called upon to be. One powerful exception is Ronnie Duncan, who as a villain of the piece does a variation on a buck-and-wing that puts you in mind of Milton’s Satan: He makes evil look fun. More, he makes fun look evil.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Johnny Knight.