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Formidable ‘Parade’ an eerily timely portrait of American injustice

Patrick Andrews is Leo Frank and Brianna Borger is his wife, Lucille, in the Writers Theatre production of Jason Robert Brown's musical, "Parade." (Photo: Michael Brosilow)

Since its debut in 1998, “Parade,” the musical about a particularly tragic episode of American injustice, has earned great esteem for its creators, including composer-lyricist Jason Robert Brown (whose soaring score is played and sung brilliantly here), playwright Alfred Uhry (who penned the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Driving Miss Daisy”), and their “co-conceiver,” Harold Prince. But it never quite became the “hit” that so many lesser but more commercial shows have enjoyed during the past two decades.

Highly recommended
When: Through July 2
Where: Writers Theater, 325 Tudor Court, Glencoe
Tickets: $35 – $80
Info: www.writerstheatre.org
Run time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, with one intermission

The superb revival of the musical that opened Wednesday at Writers Theatre should bring a whole new audience to this work which now, perhaps more than ever, evokes some of the more poisonous aspects of American life – from anti-Semitism and racial discrimination, to the rampant corruption of politics, the justice system and the media, to condescending attitudes towards women. As for its timeliness, it should be noted that as I write this review a noose has been found at the new National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., and acts of anti-Semitic vandalism have spiked in recent months. The show’s vivid dramatization of the notorious 1913 trial of Leo Frank — the Jewish manager of a pencil factory in Atlanta, Georgia, who was falsely accused and convicted of murdering Mary Phagen, a 13-year-old employee — suggests that the more things change, the more they sadly remain much the same.

Jonathan Butler-Duplessis plays Jim Conley in the Writers Theatre production of Jason Robert Brown’s musical, “Parade.” | Michael Brosilow)

“Parade” begins with a haunting musical timeline of sorts, as a young Confederate soldier (Devin DeSantis) prepares to head off to war, and as his crippled older incarnation (Larry Adams) picks up where he left off, still singing a soaring ode to his Southern homeland, “The Old Red Hills of Home.” The fertile soil of resentment has been ideally plowed, and is ready for the events that follow.

On one level, “Parade” is the story of a marriage — an arranged union between two unlikely souls. Leo Frank (Patrick Andrews), is a nervous, obsessive, Brooklyn-born, Cornell University-educated Jew with a squeamishness about sex and a powerful sense that he is a fish out of water in the South. Lucille (Brianna Borger), his wife of three years, is an assimilated Atlanta-bred Jew who wants children and romance. And director Gary Griffin has cast these roles in a way that suggests a definite mismatch (at least initially), with Andrews as the physically small, brainy, ill-at-ease Leo, and Borger as a taller, fuller, more maternal figure.

When the body of little Mary Phagen (deftly played by Caroline Heffernan) is found in the pencil factory’s basement by the black janitor, Newt Lee (exceptional work by Jonah D. Winston), the push is on to quickly identify and convict the perpetrator. Not surprisingly, Leo is the easy initial suspect. But the powers that be in Atlanta have bigger fish to fry as Governor John Slaton (a slickly polished Derek Hasenstab) hopes to climb the political ladder, as does local prosecutor Hugh Dorsey (Kevin Gudahl, ideally smarmy).  So Frank becomes their target, and this sets a firecracker under two others hungry to make their mark — reporter Britt Craig (DeSantis, who lights up the stage with every turn), and writer Tom Watson (Jeff Parker in top-notch form), a Bible-thumping, extreme right winger.

Dorsey coerces another black man, Jim Conley (a show-stopping turn by Jonathan Butler-DuPlessis in “That’s What He Said”), who has done time on a chain gang, to give crucial false testimony, and others do the same, with carefully manufactured narratives. And despite an understated, quietly confident statement by Frank himself (rendered expertly by Andrews), a jury condemns him to death by hanging.

But the case arouses the interest of Northern liberals who head South to support Frank. It’s a move that inspires two black domestic workers who have seen their own people subjected to injustice for generations (with no intervention) burst into the bitterly sardonic “Rumblin’ and a Rollin'”(sung with feverish intensity by Nicole Michelle Haskins and Winston).

As for the Franks’ marriage, after some hesitation Lucille finds her voice and purpose and appeals to the Governor who eventually commutes her husband’s sentence to life in prison based on all the flaws in the trial. Along the way, Frank awakens to the strength and devotion of his wife. But just when it looks as if he might eventually gain his freedom, vigilantes take control and enact a chilling lynching.

Borger does a beautiful job of suggesting Lucille’s awakening. She and Andrews join for “All the Wasted Time.” And Andrews maintains a sense of inner strength and dignity throughout, offering a crucial identity-confirming rendering of the Hebrew prayer, “Sh’ma.”

Throughout, Michael Mahler’s extraordinary musical direction becomes one of the great glories of this production, revealing Brown’s wide-ranging American roots score to be a mighty achievement. The cast’s uniformly clarion voices exert tremendous power, as does the nine-piece orchestra led by Matt Deitchman. (The lack of a song list in the book-thick program is inexplicable and wrong-headed.) Ericka Mac’s stylish choreography is expertly executed by a cast that also includes Jake Nicholson, McKinley Carter, Zoe Nadal, Leryn Turlington and Lindsay Maron.

And there is this irony: The Leo Frank case led to both a revival of the Ku Klux Klan and the birth of the Anti-Defamation League, the Jewish civil rights organization. In one form or another, both appear to be hard at work at this very moment.

Devin DeSantis plays reporter Britt Craig in the Writers Theatre production of “Parade.” | Michael Brosilow