at the Neighborhood Church
Astoundingly, it has taken a decade for this compelling musical drama—a Tony winner for Alfred Uhry's book and Jason Robert Brown's score—to receive a full L.A. staging, preceded only by Musical Theatre Guild's 2003 concert performance. The original Broadway production offered a resonant portrait of a tragic and shameful chapter in American history, which was driven by Harold Prince's galvanizing staging and Brown's stirring score, an eclectic feast of ragtime, folk music, patriotic anthems, blues, gospel, and traditional Broadway sounds. Here, director Brady Schwind's imaginatively scaled-down rendition beautifully captures the poetry and power of this extraordinary piece.
Brooklyn-born Jew Leo Frank (Craig D'Amico), a factory supervisor, knows he's an outsider in the racist domain of 1913 Atlanta. His trepidations prove well-founded when he's railroaded and sentenced to death for the murder of 13-year-old Mary Phagan (Alissa Anderegg) during kangaroo-court machinations. With the aid of his devoted wife, Lucille (Emily Olson), Frank convinces the governor (Michael Tatlock) of his innocence, opening up the possibility of exoneration. But the joy is short-lived, as vigilantes drag Frank out of his cell and murder him. The heinous miscarriage of justice recounted in this true story led to the establishment of organizations with opposing aims: the Anti-Defamation League and the Ku Klux Klan. A similar irony is at the heart of the play's themes, as the joyous pageantry of Brown's songs are juxtaposed to the chillingly inhumane sentiments behind the wounded pride of defeated Civil War vets of the South.
The production is graced with an exemplary ensemble. D'Amico's portrayal is remarkable in its range, conveying the nervous eccentricity that worked against Frank in the courtroom, balanced by the character's innate decency. In a less complex role, Olson does a fine job, and she sings superbly. Lanky and limber James Larsen, playing a booze-soaked and unscrupulous journalist, gives a mesmerizing performance, showing astonishing grace and dexterity in his songs and dances, as he lights up the stage with edgy comic energy. Michael Prohaska is terrific as Frank's ineffectual defense attorney. In pivotal roles as African-American witnesses, Loren Smith and Tareek Lee Holmes stand out.
David Sateren's music direction exquisitely serves the lush score, and Imara Quinonez's choreography is sublime. Inspired design elements (Michael Tushaus' set, Alicia Harrek's lighting, Karen Cornejo's costumes) perfectly conjure the period. We thank our lucky stars this long-neglected gem has arrived in such expert hands.
Presented by the Neighborhood Playhouse at the Neighborhood Church, 415 Paseo Del Mar, Palos Verdes Estates. Thu.-Sat 8 p.m., Sun. 2 & 7:30 p.m. Jul. 10-27. (800) 595-4849. www.neighborhoodplayhouse.net.
Reviewed by Les Spindle