The state of Georgia no longer celebrates Confederate Memorial Day although it is still a legal holiday in some other Southern states. Georgia and the city of Atlanta did celebrate the holiday on April 26, 1913. That date ever since has been known as the day 13-year old factory worker Mary Phagan was murdered and the beginning of the Leo Frank case. The resultant investigation, trial by jury and trial by the press, the subsequent guilty verdict, the commutation of the death sentence, the lynching of Frank all resulted in the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan and the formation of the Jewish Anti-Defamation League. One hundred and five years later both organizations are going strong. We only need to look back to the Charlottesville protests in August of last year to see the Klan and their prejudices still have free reign in America.
In 1998 Parade, a Broadway musical about the Frank case, played a mere 84 performances. The Los Angeles premiere was a staged reading in 2003 by the Musical Theatre Guild. In 2008 the Mark Taper Forum re-mounted London’s Donmar Warehouse production and in 2013 3-D Theatricals mounted a production in Fullerton that won many awards. Now they have remounted it in Cerritos and in Redondo Beach. If you have never seen it, you must. It is a powerful piece of theatre and will probably never be produced again on such a grand scale. There are 47 people on stage and when they raise their voices in chorale work, such as the finale of “The Old Red Hills of Home,” the sound is glorious. The crowd scenes, often mob scenes, feel full blown and threatening because of the size of the cast. It’s a spectacle you need to see.
Leo Frank (Jeff Skowron) was a Jewish superintendent at a pencil factory in Atlanta that employed child labor. Young Mary Phagan (Valerie Rose Lohman) was a worker there for ten cents an hour until her brutal murder. Looking for a quick conviction, prosecutor Dorsey (Davis Gaines) coached witnesses and suborned perjury, especially from Negro janitor Jim Conley (Rufus Bonds, Jr.). Dorsey and an anti-Semite religious leader (Gordon Goodman), with help from a sensationalistic press, whipped the crowds into a frenzy with their hyperbolic rhetoric. The result was a guilty verdict and a sentence of death by hanging. Mostly through the efforts of Frank’s sheltered wife Lucille (Chelle Denton), Governor Slaton (Robert Yacko) eventually commuted the sentence to life imprisonment. That made the mob even crazier leading to The Knights of Mary Phagan kidnapping Frank and ending his life.
Skowron and Denton make a strong pair, leading the cast in telling the story. Bonds, Jr. is a standout among the supporting players. The Tony Award-winning book by Alfred Uhry and the accompanying Tony Award-winning music and lyrics by Robert Jason Brown are very effective. Unfortunately director T.J. Dawson has used a sledge hammer instead of a chisel to heighten the dramatics. The action often takes a cartoonish bent, overemphasizing the hysterics. The score sounds great under the musical direction of David Lamoureux and played by the nine-member orchestra. Parade is a very important piece of theatre and rarely produced so don’t miss this opportunity. If you love musical theatre, not just musical comedy, you must see Parade.