Sunday, March 5, 2023


By Ruth Ross

For the past six weeks, the Alex Murtaugh murder trial—complete embezzlement, opioid addiction, paranoia and the grisly slaying of his wife and son—have taken up prime real estate in the nation’s newspapers and television news programs. If you think that trial was a debacle, then you don’t know Leo Frank.

An equally lurid 1913 case involved Leo Frank, the Yankee Jewish manager of an Atlanta pencil factory accused of killing a 14-year-old female worker and hiding her body in the building's basement. Yellow journalism, witness tampering, mob mentality and crooked gubernatorial politics resulted in Frank's conviction and ultimate lynching at the hands of the Ku Klux Klan. It is a stain on the reputation of the South—and on our country.

To learn more about the tragedy of Leo Frank, you could get tickets for the newly opened Broadway production of Alfred Uhry and Jason Robert Brown’s Parade starring Ben Platt. But to save money and time, I suggest that you get on over to JCC Metrowest in West Orange where the American Theater Group, a professional regional theater company, is presenting a first-rate production that opened at sold-out houses at the Sieminski Theatre in Basking Ridge for four performances March 2-5 and will transfer to West Orange for four more performances March 9 through 11. 

A sensational trial and a subsequent lynching don’t appear to be a fit subject for American musical theater, but while the glitz and glamour may be missing, Parade has human pathos and poignancy to spare. Add to that a complex, lush score, a gripping story and riveting performances, and you've got the recipe for a tour de force production that should not be missed by anyone from 13 to 90.

Fifty years after the Civil War, Atlanta still celebrated Confederate Memorial Day with rousing parades (two of which open and close the show). This puzzles Brooklyn-born Leo Frank who can't imagine why anyone would celebrate such a resounding loss. In fact, he goes to work that day as on any other, an act that contributes to his ultimate undoing, for he was in his office when Mary Phagan came to collect her week's pay—and was never seen again until her body was discovered under a pile of rags in the basement. (Right: David Gordon and Megan McGinnis as Leo and Lucille Frank listen to testimony during the trial.)

Frank becomes a suspect because he is the quintessential Atlanta outsider: a Northerner, a college graduate, a Jew come to the city to marry and manage his wife's uncle's pencil factory. His rather detached, somewhat arrogant demeanor, and high-strung personality don't help matters either. Eager to get the case out of his hair, the white governor instructs the district attorney to get a conviction, and it doesn't have to be another Black man this time. Horrific tales about Frank's preying on the young girls who work for him are told in court and printed in the newspapers, inflaming the mob who can't wait for "Armageddon" when "The Hammer Will Fall" (the titles of two of the songs). Even when Frank is sentenced to hang, the punishment is not enough. Several men, all of them prominent in Atlanta's business and social community, take matters into their own hands and, wearing white hoods, kidnap Frank from the work farm where he's been incarcerated and lynch him.

This is the first time I have reviewed the American Theatre Group in its 11-year history, and it won’t be my last. Director and musical theater veteran Hunter Foster masterfully manages this complex show with its large cast; the tension never lags, keeping the audience on the edge of its collective seat, finally weeping at the outcome.

As for the performances, kudos to everyone in the cast, from the two leads down to the minor parts. The stockier David R. Gordon (Left, with Megan McGinnis as his wife Lucille) may not totally resemble the real Leo Frank, who had a slight build, thick glasses, bulging eyes and slicked-back hair, but his imperious and often rude manner, nervousness and compulsive handwringing convincingly convey the character’s less attractive traits. He has a beautiful voice, and his impressive performance includes a plaintive and disdainful lament about living in the South ("How Can I Call This Home") and an emotionally charged statement he gives to the court against the advice of counsel. But perhaps the most heart-wrenching is a duet with his wife Lucille wherein he mourns the time they wasted together before his conviction, and his recital of the Hebrew prayer affirming God’s oneness, the Shema, is gut-wrenching. Megan McGinnis’s Lucille Frank may be mousy in looks and demeanor at first, but she grows an iron backbone to defend her husband, standing up to him for his lack of faith in her resolve, telling the reporters that they don't know this man and declaring that all is not over even after Leo has been convicted. These two performances alone would be well worth the price of admission.

However, the rest of the ATG cast turns in equally fine performances, often in thankless roles. Samantha Soybel is adorable as Mary Phagan; she pertly skips around the stage, teasing her would-be beau Frankie Epps (played by Jack Dossett) and walks through several other scenes as a ghost to remind us that she was a real flesh-and-blood girl (I especially love the song "It Don't Make Sense," in which composer Brown tells us what she liked in life). Joseph Dellger’s white-haired Governor Slaton, unexpectedly conflicted about the case, gamely shows his courage by commuting Frank's sentence, but it's too late.

The villains of the piece are Peter Green as D.A. Hugh Dorsey, hungry for a conviction (which will lead to the governor's mansion, he's advised), tampering with witnesses, whipping up the crowd, extolling the glory of antebellum Georgia. Kaleb Jenkins is equally as odious as reporter Britt Craig, tired of covering the police blotter and seeing the Frank case as his professional savior. RJ Christian as the janitor Jim Conley is as slimy a character as ever lived onstage; in exchange for not being outed as a chain gang escapee, he agrees to finger Frank as the killer. And Liam Searcy as local politician Tom Watson also acts despicably, calling for the hammer of justice to bring about Armageddon. At times, these characters feel as though they are caricatures of Southern white officials 50 years after the Civil War ended, but their portrayal by these four actors convincingly puts their bigotry and ambition on full display. It may not be pretty to watch, but it effectively depicts the despicable event occurring at the time. (Above L-R: Green, Christian and Gordon)

Production values are also superb. David Arsenault’s set is minimal but functional: Chairs lined up across the back of the stage are pulled out and arranged in a variety of patterns denote the scenes depicted. Saawan Tiwari’s costumes evoke the era beautifully, especially the frocks worn by Lucille Frank and the buttoned-up suits sported by Leo Frank. Nate Brown’s sound and Christopher Wong’s atmospheric lighting further enhance the sense of impending doom. And Keith Levenson’s musical direction accompanies the actors and sets the fraught tenor of the proceedings without overpowering the lyrics. (Left: Led by Kaleb Jenkins, reporters descend on Marietta GA to cover the trial.)

An angry and ambitious musical, Parade had a brief run at Lincoln Center back in 1998 but won Tony Awards for Best Book and Best Score, along with six Drama Desk Awards. It addresses a shameful, albeit important, chapter in our nation's history, one that brought about the founding of the Anti-Defamation League, the Jewish Civil Rights organization and, sadly, a resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan. Its revival today, whether it be on Broadway, in Basking Ridge or West Orange, brings the audience full face with the evils of antisemitism and bigotry.

The events depicted in Parade, 110 years after the fact, are exactly the history lesson some people would rather not be taught in American high schools—especially in the South—but in this time of political and social polarization, it is the perfect wake-up call as to what can happen when fear of social change, unchecked hatred of the “other” and incendiary talk abound and have become the norm. I suggest you catch this production before it closes. And take your teenagers, for they are the next generation to deal with injustice.

Parade will be performed at the Maurice Levin Theater at the JCC MetroWest, 760 Northfield Ave., West Orange, for four performances only: Thursday, March 9; Friday, March 10; and Saturday, March 11, at 7 PM, and Saturday, March 11, at 1 PM. Tickets, $45 and $55, may be purchased online at

Photos by Lianne Schoenwiesner and Spotlights Photography.