Leo Frank felt like an outsider in Georgia. A Cornell-educated Jew with a meticulous mind for business and a chilly Northern demeanor, he couldn’t abide the drawling hospitality of Southerners, particularly in light of the post-Civil War sentiments that still hung around the Confederate states in 1913. Despite his disdain for most people living below the Mason-Dixon line, Frank fell in love with a Southern girl and became an Atlanta resident, running a factory with the same stoic precision he applied to the upkeep of his marriage. When 13-year-old Mary Phagan — a wage-worker at Frank’s factory — was murdered, Frank became the prime suspect. The neighbors now had good reason to hate the already unpopular intellectual, so why not nail him for the brutal killing-by-strangulation? The case remains a mystery today, but some light has been shed on the incident by Alfred Uhry, who turned the sensationalized crime story into, of all things, a musical. The unlikely song-and-dance vehicle works to a breathtaking degree on all levels.
The Donmar Warehouse production of Parade is taking center stage at the Mark Taper Forum, featuring an actor that TV fans will recognize. T.R. Knight, the beloved George, of Grey’s Anatomy, plays Frank with gut-wrenching effectiveness. His musical numbers and dramatic moments show a depth of talent that far surpasses his television turn. In “How Can I Call This Home?” we see Frank grappling with his outsider’s status, a man on the fringes, lonely in his “Yiddishisms” and his intellectual’s life of the mind. Though Knight steals the show, the ensemble cast is likewise powerful, particularly Christian Hoff as Hugh Dorsey, the histrionic Southern lawyer who’ll do anything to cast a negative light on Frank, even though we know he’s doing it all for show, grabbing at a big trial take-down of the vilified Northern Jew.
As we slog through this who-dunnit tale, underscored by a sometimes harrowing, sometimes comical musical arrangement, we feel sick for Frank, a hunted man whose docile nature reeks of innocence. In the end, it’s all about the North vs. the South and a corrupt justice system, but the particulars of the music, the casting, the lighting and the choreography make this age-old story of injustice come to razor-sharp life. Rob Ashford should be lauded for his directing and choreography. Alfred Uhry’s book and Jason Robert Brown’s lyrics are flawless.
Through November 15 at the Mark Taper Forum. Call 213.628.2772.