Minnesota Jewish Theatre Company & Theater Latté Da
at History Theatre through March 16
It's 1913 in Atlanta, and Jewish Brooklyn transplant Leo Frank (Dieter Bierbrauer) is not feeling the love. It's Confederate Memorial Day, for starters, which stokes his raging contempt for the South and those who live there. A reasonable source of solace might be a little quality time with his lovely missus Lucille (Ann Michels), but Leo opts instead for the office at the pencil factory where he's a supervisor—a job that Lucille's family got for him, and at which he humorlessly grinds away (before he walks out the door, he fussily seizes up when his wife playfully utters the word "procreate").
Putting aside the fact that Frank was a real person (who suffered appalling injustice and a gruesome death), it's reasonable to raise the question of whether this is a character around which to build an ambitious piece of musical theater. What befalls him is the crucial matter: 13-year-old worker Mary Phagan (Caroline Innerbichler) is found brutally murdered in the factory, and there are no immediate suspects. Governor Slaton (Tod Petersen) is spoiling for a conviction for political cover, though, and enlists prosecutor Hugh Dorsey (Nathan Brian) to go after Frank. They coach witnesses and generally railroad our hero, their callous disregard for the truth helped along by generous doses of anti-Semitism.
Alfred Uhry's book (co-conceived with Harold Prince) and Jason Robert Brown's music and lyrics propel things with ample momentum and muscular storytelling (Brown's compositions are a combination platter of American styles, from marches to Southern whimsy to big, sweeping ballads. None of them stick in the head the next morning). Yet throughout this well-presented production, the nagging question persists of precisely what this story is, and why we're seeing it.
Frank's conviction and rejected appeals were well publicized and particularly condemned in the North during their time, which is mentioned tangentially but certainly comes as some small consolation in light of the scurvy characters aligned against him. Randy Schmeling brims with dark ennui as an alcoholic reporter who sees the case as a welcome diversion, while Kevin Dutcher embodies glib ineffectuality as Frank's lawyer (he advises him to "start acting more like a good old boy"). And Shawn Hamilton exudes magnetic malice as Jim Conley, an ex-con who falsely testifies against Frank, then mocks the governor when he comes to investigate the case.
In other words, director Peter Rothstein has loaded this show with a sense of purpose and drive. But where are we being driven? There's a strong sense here that even the bad guys are rendered with an attempt at humanity (Hamilton displays a wronged, what-the-hell futility, and Petersen carves a complex character out of potential cardboard), in a show that could have veered hard into emotionally charged if intellectually knee-deep territory: Southern racists bad, victims of oppression good.
Instead, Uhry hedges his bets by dwelling on Leo Frank's personal evolution. For much of the show he behaves pretty much like a prick toward Lucille, shrugging off both her attempts at comfort and offers to help his case. After she personally appeals to Governor Slaton and gets his death sentence commuted, he sees that he has a formidable ally and finally loves her up at a picnic held at the prison farm to which he's moved. Michels merges sweetness with fire, though Bierbrauer struggles to provide a convincing shift from Leo's self-centeredness to the sweeping openness he's supposed to depict.
No matter, though. Bierbrauer is dignified and resolute in Leo's final scene, his last act a remembrance of the wife he'll never see again. If this show is odd and hard to reconcile, this particular production ends up more moving than the sum of its parts. As a history, it's hopelessly bleak, and as a romance it only gets you halfway there. While I found myself caring throughout, this is a musical that will probably resist becoming anyone's favorite.