Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.
Also see Susan's review of The Habit of Art
The intense 1998 musical by Alfred Uhry (book) and Jason Robert Brown (music and lyrics) recounts a true story of murder, prejudice, and ultimately the lynching of an innocent man. (And why shouldn't the musical theater take on such serious topics? Operas do.) This production, well directed by Stephen Rayne, is powerful enough that its good points more than compensate for its weaknesses.
The central figure is Leo Frank (Euan Morton), an educated northern Jew running a factory in 1913 Atlanta. He is both dismissive and fearful of living in a place so different from what he has always known, and he is formal and distant with his Atlanta-born Jewish wife Lucille (Jenny Fellner). However, everything changes on Confederate Memorial Day when the dead body of 13-year-old factory worker Mary Phagan (Lauren Williams) is found in the factory basement. Despite a lack of evidence, Leo becomes the main suspect in the crime.
Bigotry is one reason for the rush to judgment, but deliberate manipulation of opinion is another. Between an ambitious prosecutor (James Konicek) who will do whatever it takes to get a conviction, a viciously anti-Semitic newspaper publisher with political ambitions (Will Gartshore), and a drunken reporter just looking for a break (Chris Sizemore), Leo comes to symbolize everything the South resents about the North. The issue is larger than the city's usual racial friction: after the prosecutor tries to force the factory's African-American night watchman into confessing to the crime, he realizes that "hanging another Nigra isn't enough this time."
Once the viewer gets used to Morton's rather odd accent, more Boston than New York, the characterization falls into place with the help of his resonant singing. Leo tends to come across as unsympathetic and diffident, intellectual in the midst of an emotional hurricane, and the heart of the drama is how he and Lucille (a lovely, warm performance by Fellner) deepen their relationship amid the fury of the world around them.
Other standouts are Gartshore, who conveys hatred with a honeyed voice; Kevin McAllister as both the fearful night watchman and the factory cleaner who figures out how to use the system for his own benefit; and Stephen F. Schmidt as Governor. John Slaton, who ultimately places principle above posturing.
Karma Camp's choreography ranges stylistically from the early flirtation between Mary and young Frankie Epps (Matthew John Kacergis) to the intensity of the first-act curtain, as jubilant dancers celebrate Leo's conviction while Leo and Lucille cower together.