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THEATER REVIEW: “Parade” is brilliant at Cygnet Theatre

Cygnet Theatre scores another bull’s-eye with a truly excellent production of Jason Robert Brown’s Tony-winning “Parade.”

This musical about a sorry chapter in U.S. history – the lynching of Leo Frank by anti-Semitic hooligans in 1915 – is frighteningly relevant today.

A backlash set in after the South was defeated in the Civil War. Atlanta in particular was left devastated by Sherman's march to Savannah. Residents, left to pick up the pieces, harbored fear of and hatred for Northerners and other outsiders.

Frank (Brandon Joel Maier) fit the profile: both a Cornell-educated Yankee and a Jew, Frank moved to Atlanta to become superintendent of his uncle's pencil factory, but never fit in with the local good ole boy mentality.

He made little attempt to ingratiate himself with the locals, showing himself both short-tempered and contemptuous of social institutions like the titular parade commemorating Confederate Memorial Day ("Why would anyone celebrate losing a war?" he asks).

He even took the local Jews to task for falling in with the Southern mindset: "I can't understand how God created you people Jewish and Southern at the same time," the exasperated Frank tells his Southern Jewish wife Lucille (Sandy Campbell).

So when 13-year-old employee Mary Phagan (Samantha Littleford) was found strangled in the factory's basement in 1913, and Frank was one of the last three people to see Mary alive (the others were night watchman Newt Lee and janitor Jim Conley, both played by Bryan Barbarin), Georgia Governor Slaton (Rick D. Meads) tasked District Attorney Hugh Dorsey (David Kirk Grant) with convicting someone at a time when "hanging another black man ain't enough" (an election was at stake).

Mob psychology, political expediency and dislike of Frank in particular led to his dubious conviction, despite the absence of conclusive evidence. He was sentenced to death in 1913, later to be dragged from his cell and lynched by angry townsmen.

This sorry event not only has historical import (it precipitated the establishment of the Anti-Defamation League), but also personal significance for playwright Harold Uhry: his great-uncle owned the factory where the murder took place.

Jason Robert Brown’s score is an intriguing combination of recitative-like pieces aimed at the audience rather than another character (such as Frank’s “How Can I Call This Home?”), courtly numbers reminiscent of the Old South, blues, gospel and occasional barn-burners like “Hammer of Justice” and “Where Will You Stand When The Flood Comes?”

This may be the strongest cast ever assembled on the Cygnet stage. Maier is pitch-perfect as the nerdy, intellectual misfit Leo, so out of place in this sea of rightwing hail-fellow-well-met neighbors. His interpretation of “It’s Hard To Speak My Heart” will break yours.

Campbell’s Lucille shows a Jewish steel magnolia – mannerly but with a steely interior resolve that pushes her to act. Leo is a bit embarrassed by her actions, but she almost saved his life.

Meads is excellent as the governor, who first plays Pilate to the jury’s cry for blood and later changes his mind, at great personal cost.

But the scene-stealer is Barbarin, whose commanding presence and full, rich voice on blues and gospel numbers left me wishing for more.

That’s not to slight others in this large cast, such as Geno Carr, playing both Officer Starnes and the demagogic publisher Tom Watson, who stirred up the hatred and would later become a U.S. senator; Gigi Coddington as the Franks’ maid Minnie, bullied into testifying against her boss; Jacob Caltrider (who shines in some of the early songs), Amy Perkins, Kathleen Calvin and Katie Whalley as friends of Mary; Steve Gunderson as the judge (and others).

Director Sean Murray smartly stays out of the way and lets this finely constructed story tell itself while adding a few small touches that enhance the production, such as the recurring use of the shiver-inducing hymn “There Is A Fountain Filled With Blood” and the DA's use of flashlights in Leo's face during his interrogation.

The fine eight-player orchestra must be mentioned as well, and David Brannen’s lovely choreography, especially in the tea dance scene. Sean Fanning’s simple tree-centered set, Shirley Pierson’s fine costumes and Chris Rynne’s lighting all add to the atmosphere.

Uhry and Brown won Tonys for the book and score, respectively. This version, considerably pared down from its unwieldy (for regional theater) size to 16 actors, seems to be having a resurgence. It’s a good thing.

There aren’t many must-sees in any given theater season. Cygnet’s “Parade” is one.

The details

“Parade” plays through April 29 at Cygnet Theatre, 4040 Twiggs St. in Old Town.

Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 pm; Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 3 and 8 pm; Sunday at 2 and 7 pm.

For tickets, call (619) 337-1525 or visit HERE.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.