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Mob Scene

FPCT Takes Matters into its Own Hands With a Musical About Mob Injustice

Southern Discomfort: Matthew Bowerman (left) gets the glad hand from Al Woltz in Parade.

By John Barry | Posted 10/9/2002


Jason Robert Brown

Jason Brown's Parade is, to put it bluntly, a musical about a lynching. In 1913, Leo Frank, a Jewish accountant, was arrested without evidence in Atlanta for the murder and rape of 14-year-old Mary Phagan. When the judicial branch failed to string him up, local citizens took him out of jail and finished the job. Frank was pardoned in 1986 by the Georgia Supreme Court, but it was a mixed blessing: He'd been dead for 74 years, and, in the end, the pardon did not absolve Frank of the murder itself. His lynchers, meanwhile, got a much better deal--they were never arrested in the first place.

It's difficult to see Parade doing very well in Atlanta. For Baltimore's theater enthusiasts, though, it begins the 2002 season on a high note. Both director Bill Kamberger and his 35-member cast have pooled limited resources to tackle a complex musical in which songs and drama are elaborately intertwoven. So this musical has some great numbers, but it also has the impact of an intense, and sometimes funny, play.

Fortunately, Brown avoids turning Parade into a politically correct tearjerker. In the tradition of his mentor Stephen Sondheim, he ratchets up the dark humor, which he uses to create a colorful confederacy of misfits: good, ol' boys, Southern-belle wannabes, corrupt politicians, Bible thumpers, crusty Civil War veterans, chain gangs, and, at the bottom, blacks and Jews. In the proud Southern tradition, none of these people like each other much, except when they find somebody nearly everyone can hate. Leo Frank (Matthew Bowerman) is a Yankee Jew who fits the bill perfectly. When the city needed a scapegoat for the murder of a Southern girl, all eyes turned to him.

Bowerman has a tough job. He has to portray a guy the audience can sympathize without sentimentalizing him. Bowerman's character is likable, but he's also an outsider, which leaves him temperamental and a little arrogant. The locals can take it from there: In short order they cast him as a lascivious, penny-pinching, butt-pinching child molester. His Atlanta-born wife, Lucille (Claire Carberry), will come through at the end, but at the beginning even she seems to wonder if she couldn't have done better than him. Carberry and Bowerman have great chemistry, which shouldn't be surprising, since the program tells us they're engaged.

Kamberger has managed to assemble an impressive cast, a few of whom seem born into their roles. Howard Turner III offers a magnificent portrayal of a black bootlicker who revels in his role as puppet for the prosecution. If you've been wondering whatever happened to Newt Gingrich, you'll find him in Jeff Burch's semi-courageous, politically doomed Governor Slaton. Peter Crews as prosecutor Hugh Dorsey is a refined sleazeball who is willing to send Frank to the hangman for personal gain, but who approaches the whole affair with curious disdain. Josh Singer has a show-stopping moment as a frustrated, whiskey-guzzling reporter in a backwater where no news is good news. And the list goes on. Thirty-five actors can barely fit on one stage, but with Kamberger's blocking and Jane Rubak's musical direction, they become an insidious presence, as they cross the thin line from Southern politesse to mob rule.

In the foyer after the show, while a hard rain fell outside, several non-umbrella-carrying minglers were debating possible parallels between old-fashioned Southern justice and some of the more recent post-Sept. 11 variations on the Kangaroo Court. It makes sense to look for those parallels, but anyone who goes to watch Parade can find their own spin. Jason Brown, who took this show to Broadway in 1999, would probably say that the message is in the title itself: When it comes to politically motivated race baiting, marchers come and go, but the parade goes on.

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