A simple case of complex issues

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Rob Ashford’s first-rate production does every credit to Alfred Uhry and Jason Robert Brown’s musical; unfortunately the musical, skilful though it is, does rather less credit to the subject matter. The 1913 case in which Leo Frank was convicted of the murder of 13-year-old Mary Phagan in Atlanta, Georgia, raises a vast number of issues. The programme enumerates these as “class anxiety” (Frank was a manager at the pencil factory where Phagan worked, and a Yankee to boot), “yellow journalism” (one of W.R. Hearst’s papers fervently whipped up anti-Frank sentiment), “the exploitation of labour” (Phagan and her co-workers were paid derisory wages), “anti-Semitism” (Frank was a Jew, which gave the Old South and black people a chance to unite in a different shade of bigotry) and “the ways in which the efforts of well-meaning people can backfire”: Frank’s case was taken up by a range of folk including Edison and Henry Ford, all of which made Georgians feel more defiant, and when Governor John Slaton commuted the death sentence to life imprisonment, Slaton lost his office and Frank his life to a kidnapping-and-lynch mob of prominent citizens.

All these complexities are acknowledged by Uhry’s book and Brown’s songs (which at their best reminded me of the mature, less coruscating Randy Newman), but virtually none of them is addressed in any substantive way. Instead we are kept firmly focused on the human- interest story . . . so firmly that the writers even scorn one of drama’s most reliable devices. In a courtroom sequence we hear not one word of the defence case, not even cross- examination of prosecution witnesses (who are portrayed as having been coached by a district attorney).

It is, in a way, impressive how adeptly we are manipulated both in our sentimentality and in our closely shepherded social outrage. As Frank himself, Bertie Carvel also deserves plaudits for a performance that does nothing to hide the character’s unattractive aspects without compromising his fundamental innocence. And of course, with a story of a child murdered and suspects hounded through the press, we cannot help but draw comparisons with more immediate events. But the partiality of Parade grows more palpable the longer it goes on, and at 2¾ hours that gets pretty palpable.
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