Evoking a Lynching In Music and Words

by Steve Parks
Staff Writer
LI Newsday

PARADE. Long Island premiere of the musical co-conceived by Harold Prince and Alfred Uhry; book by Uhry; music and lyrics, Jason Robert Brown; directed and choreographed by Bruce Grossman. At Cultural Arts Playhouse, Old Bethpage, through Aug. 4. Seen July 8.

WHILE African-Americans were the prime target of racist violence in the post-Civil War South, resentment against Yankees made the region inhospitable for certain white minorities as well.

Alfred Uhry's best-known works-"Driving Miss Daisy" and "The Last Night of Ballyhoo" - have dealt with Southern Jews, who, by and large, were tolerated by the white Christian establishment in his native Atlanta.

But Leo Frank was a Brooklyn- born Jew in the wrong place at the wrong time in 1913 Atlanta. Accused in the murder of Mary Phagan, a 13-year-old who worked at his pencil factory, Frank had as much chance of receiving a fair trial as a black man. When the courageous governor of Georgia commuted his sentence to life before the scheduled hanging, Frank was seized by vigilantes who lynched him-a form of mob justice usually reserved for men of color.

An unlikely subject for a musical? Perhaps. Although "Parade" failed to generate enough box-office appeal to survive on Broadway 2 1/2 years ago, it succeeded in relating this true-story account of Frank's grisly fate with dignity and intelligence. As directed by Bruce Grossman, the Long Island premiere of "Parade" at Cultural Arts Playhouse is no less worthy.

The title refers to the singularly Southern observance of the Confederate Memorial Day, marked by a parade and speeches by surviving veterans of the Civil War. In the musical, this holiday, celebrated in the opening ensemble number, "The Old Red Hills of Home," symbolizes the parochialism and prejudice that Frank despises about the South. "How Can I Call This Home?" he asks in song.

As Leo Frank, Craig Treubert makes an auspicious debut in a lead musical role. Projecting an ill-at-ease whininess, Treubert's Frank comes across at first as an unlikable outsider who does little to hide his disdain for those around him. He's even dismissive of his Southern wife, played with stoic grace by Heather Jewels.

What Treubert's voice lacks in power it more than makes up for in conviction. And his Act II duet with Jewels, "All the Wasted Time," redeems him as a grateful husband and a man of integrity. Among the supporting players are Joe Danbusky as Gov. Slaton, Mia Elfasy as sweet, young Mary Phagan and Marcus Weeks as Jim Conley, the likely alternative suspect in Mary's murder. Weeks' vocal agility in "Feel the Rain Fall" is an Act 2 showstopper, while his number with Van Whitaker Jr. and others, "A Rumblin' and a Rollin'," puts the history of lynching in the South in racial perspective.
This able cast is accompanied by the unusually large - by regional theater standards-16-piece orchestra led by Roger Butterley, which does justice to Jason Robert Brown's lush score. Designer Craig Lent accommodates scene changes with backdrops meant to evoke the Old South. The hanging tree looks sturdy enough, but some Spanish moss might have helped. More successful in suggesting the period and place are Barbara Kirby's all-frills dresses and old-soldier uniforms.
Quibbles aside, don't let this "Parade" pass you by.

The Old Red Hills of HOME