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The Case Against Leo
An infamous lynching becomes a somber musical

In April 1913 the body of Mary Phagan, 13, strangled to death, was found in the basement of the Atlanta pencil factory where she worked. Leo Frank, the factory's manager, was arrested for the crime and, despite his protestations of innocence, convicted of murder and sentenced to death. Two years later, after his sentence had been commuted to life imprisonment by the Governor of Georgia, Frank was taken from his prison cell by persons unknown and lynched. Because Frank was Jewish, his case became a nationwide cause celebre for Jewish groups and political figures crusading against anti-Semitism.

Not the usual material for a Broadway musical--but don't scoff. Director Harold Prince has taken other unlikely subjects, from Sweeney Todd to Evita Peron, and made them sing onstage. And book author Alfred Uhry (whose great-uncle was Leo Frank's boss) has been able to turn the crosscurrents of race and religion in the South into mass entertainment before (Driving Miss Daisy, The Last Night of Ballyhoo). Indeed, Parade, which just opened at Lincoln Center, is the kind of ambitious musical that can sometimes soar to greatness. It certainly takes a healthy bite out of a juicy story. It relates the case to the South's effort to heal the schisms of the Civil War (in an opening flashback, a Confederate soldier sings of home); portrays the tensions between Frank, a transplanted New Yorker, and his more assimilated Southern-Jewish wife Lucille; and sketches everything from the sensationalistic press coverage to the complex social pressures on the case, in which Frank's chief accuser (and, it now appears, the probable murderer) was a black man.

But for all its intelligence, Parade is a somber show that falls uncomfortably between the stools of history and art. The facts are treated respectfully enough to make the digressions into cliche annoying. To bolster Frank's status as a victim, for example, his lawyer is portrayed as a clueless Southern blowhard whose legal strategy consists mainly of keeping Frank from testifying and having him make an impromptu statement to the jury instead. In reality, according to Steve Oney, author of a history of the case to be published next year, Frank was represented by two of the most respected members of Atlanta's legal elite, and their defense rested largely on the assumption that a Southern jury would never convict a white man on the basis of a black man's testimony.

The talented Brent Carver and Carolee Carmello do their level best to bring Leo and Lucille to life, but, as written, their characters are fatally uninteresting. The music and lyrics, by Jason Robert Brown, catch fire only in a couple of disposable up-tempo numbers (Mary Phagan getting wooed by a suitor on the trolley) and turn gooey in big ballads like All the Wasted Time, sung by Lucille and Leo in jail. Prince's staging is elegant but rather quiet, the set dominated by a giant oak tree from which Leo will eventually hang. No one wants a glitzed-up tragedy, but when a show called Parade has three of them, and each takes place at the back of the stage mostly hidden by the onlooking crowd, you can't even go home humming the sets. END

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