Hugh Dorsey (Jamison Stern) speaks to the jury in the Finger Lakes Musical Theatre Festival’s production of “Parade.”

Parade. Book by Alfred Uhry; music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown. Directed and choreographed by Brett Smock. With Aaron Galligan-Stierle and ensemble. At Merry-Go-Round Playhouse, Auburn, through July 26. For tickets call 1-800-457-8897.

Everybody loves a parade — unless you’re a Brooklyn-raised Jew living in Atlanta in 1913, and the flag-filled parade celebrates Confederate Memorial Day. Leo Frank, a young Cornell-trained mechanical engineer who moved south to manage a relative’s pencil factory, married a Georgia gal, but he’s far from adapted to local ways. Lamenting “How Can I Call This Home,” Leo fulminates against the backward thinking of those he lives among.

Hard-working to a fault, Leo has resisted his wife Lucille’s pleas for a day off; he’s in his office going over the accounts when 13-year-old Mary Phagan, an employee, comes to collect her $1.20 pay. Within hours Mary is found violated and strangled to death in the factory basement; Leo finds himself a suspect and eventually on trial.

That’s the premise of Parade, a dark musical based on disturbing historical events — the nationally publicized trial of Leo Frank and his ultimate lynching in 1915. It’s the third in Alfred Uhry’s trilogy of plays about Atlanta Jews, the first being the well-known Driving Miss Daisy. Both his book and Jason Robert Brown’s resounding score won 1998 Tony awards for the Harold Prince original. 

Currently at Auburn’s Merry-Go-Round Playhouse, artistic director Brett Smock (assisted by Robin Levine) excellently directs and choreographs this provocative musical. It’s a powerhouse production, creatively staged: many of the show’s 31 characters (perfectly costumed by Tiffany Howard) are onstage simultaneously. Czerton Lim’s three-tiered wood and metal set is grim and foreboding, opening with eight straight-backed chairs and one table suspended over the bare boards like strange fruit. Jose Santiago lights the action emotionally, murkily, in yellow and red tones, shaping haunting effects on the backdrop outline of an enormous, thick-branched tree.

There’s no escaping the horrific outcome, as the rousing drums in the score repeatedly suggest. Under Jeff Theiss’ able direction, the orchestra drives the action forward, as do the townspeople, with their swelling anger. In “Real Big News” and other numbers, the community becomes a mob, manipulated and manipulating, a chorus of group-think. Awash with lies, bribery and coercion, the jury can only convict.

But Frank has been historically exonerated, and if you listen closely to the lyrics, you’ll discern the actual murderer. Still, at least two people leaving the theater last weekend were heard to say “it’s open to interpretation” whether Frank was guilty. When the entire point of a show about the miscarriage of justice can be so misread, it’s a marvel that verdicts can ever be fair. 

In Parade, the emotional, prejudicial mindset of the Christian populace, along with the pervasive self-interest and opportunism of some, is chilling, even sickening. And it’s no stretch to say this century-old story’s themes of mistruths, political distortions and regional and religious chauvinism have equally distressing echoes in today’s America.

Ever sensitive to the uneasy Southern system of forced accommodation between black and white, Uhry also shows us daily racial and class insults, whether in a lady neglecting to pick up her dropped hairpins because “the maid will do it,” or through an overt complaint, “A Rumblin’ and a Rollin’,” with two servants cynically noting the hypocrisy of the hoopla over a white man’s trial and a white child’s death in a society where injustice to blacks is standard.

Men’s arrogant, assumed authority is also depicted, most movingly in the Franks’ relationship. Lucille, negotiating Southern customs as Leo cannot, courageously becomes his advocate even to the governor, who ultimately commutes Leo’s death sentence. Leo’s coming to know and appreciate Lucille, whom he’d neglected and undervalued, adds a tender love story — a glimpse of hope — to this bleak tale.

Their duet, “All the Wasted Time,” is exquisite, as they share a make-believe picnic on the floor of Leo’s jail cell. As Leo, Aaron Galligan-Stierle is simply superb, in voice and character, from indignant to humbled; his imperfect humanity anchors the production. Kristin Wetherington supports him handsomely as Lucille. As outgoing governor Slaton, who crashes his career by re-investigating the evidence, Dave Schoonover is a welcome relief (both morally and humorously, in the ball scene); Adrien Swenson has presence as his wife. 

Antagonists are complexly delivered: Jamison Stern as shifty prosecutor Huge Dorsey; Jake Mills as racist editor Tom Watson; Scott Guthrie as yellow journalist Britt Craig. Shannon Beel plays Mary Phagan, with a dynamic Brendan Jacob Smith as Frankie Epps, her friend and later frenzied avenger.

A gorgeously voiced Marcus Jordan portrays night watchman Newt Lee, who’s entangled in the factory drama, along with janitor Jim Conley, an ex-con pressured into fabricating damning evidence. Fergie L. Philippe delivers him as powerful, threatening, unrepentant, even in chain gang servitude — his blues song alone should stop the show. 

Frank’s haunting prayer, “Sh’ma Yisrael,” before he’s hung, actually does. This production will reverberate for a long while — with its insights into the nature of prejudice and the damage of hysteria. 

 

Barbara Adams, a regional arts journalist, teaches writing at Ithaca College.

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