Trial of the Century 1.0: R-S Theatrics' Parade offers an engaging glimpse 100 years into the past

Sep 12, 2013 at 4:00 am

It was called the trial of the century, but the century was young. Nevertheless, in 1913 when Leo Frank, the 29-year-old superintendent of an Atlanta pencil factory, was charged with the murder of 13-year-old employee Mary Phagan, national attention was riveted on the polarizing trial. On the flimsiest of evidence, Frank was found guilty and sentenced to hang. After Georgia governor John Slaton commuted Frank's death sentence — a courageous decision that ended Slaton's political career — vigilantes (including the state's former governor) kidnapped Leo Frank from prison and hanged him.

During the past century, these sensational events have been dramatized onscreen (They Won't Forget, The Murder of Mary Phagan) and fictionalized in print (David Mamet's The Old Religion). Then there is Parade, the ambitious 1998 musical with a score by composer/lyricist Jason Robert Brown and a script by Atlanta native Alfred Uhry (whose great uncle had owned the pencil factory). Brown and Uhry's grim account places the story into historical context. A prelude is set early in the Civil War as an idealistic young Confederate soldier in Georgia sings about defending "the old red hills of home." During this prelude a half-century passes; it is 1913. That same soldier, now a lame veteran, attends Atlanta's annual Confederate Memorial Day parade. Although the War of Northern Aggression remains a bitter memory, the townsfolk join with the veteran to proclaim, "We'll sing 'Dixie' once again." On this same sacred day, Phagan is murdered. The local establishment disdains the key suspect, Leo Frank, as a condescending Northern capitalist Jew, no better than the carpetbaggers who came to Georgia during Reconstruction to exploit Southern womanhood. (Mary and her coworkers earned pitifully meager wages.) Frank's inflammatory trial provides a cathartic opportunity for these defeated Georgians to whip themselves into the frenzy that was the Lost Cause.

Although Brown and Uhry won Tony Awards for their work, the debut production of Parade closed after a mere 85 performances. Apparently people don't like spending money to be told that they are despicable; with the exception of Governor Slaton, there are few heroes in this sorry saga. Leo's wife Lucille displays a certain valiance, but even Leo is an often-arrogant victim. Yet despite a certain lack of empathy in the story, Parade's sheer audaciousness is thrilling; any sighting of this rarely seen musical is an event to be embraced.

All hail R-S Theatrics, a plucky little ensemble that delights in presenting the unusual. But how can this David of a company do justice to this Goliath of a musical? Under the inventive direction of Christina Rios, R-S wisely does not approach the show head-on. Rather, R-S has affected a tactical victory by mounting an end run that simply ignores the show's massive production challenges. This Parade is akin to a staged reading. The barest of sets; the most modest costumes. The story plays out in stark pools of light from lighting designer Nathan Schroeder.

Parade has been stripped to its essence, and that essence is the glorious music. Musical director Leah Luciano and her fearless band have a field day blasting their way through Brown's songs, rich in blues, bluegrass, ragtime, jazz, gospel. When Parade debuted in 1998, New York reviewers tended to overlook Brown's first-time score, probably because he was unknown. Here, that score is unearthed as a treasure trove of rediscovered gems.

Although Leo Frank is a somewhat remote protagonist, Pete Winfrey instills him with an appealing ingenuousness. The musical would have us believe that Leo and his wife Lucille, a native Georgian, were an ill-matched pair who grew to love each other through tragic adversity. Jennifer Theby-Quinn admirably evokes Lucile's resolve and spine. The two leads are supported by a hard-working cast of fifteen singing actors. The original New York staging sported 37 actors, but so what? This brash vest-pocket production reminds us of how much can be accomplished when enthusiasm trumps money. A little imagination — on both sides of the stage — can go a long way, even when the story being told on that stage is so infamously egregious that it stuns the imagination.