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LA Theater Review


This brilliant musical by Alfred Uhry and Jason Robert Brown eloquently dramatizes a real-life tragic miscarriage of justice that occurred in Atlanta in 1913: the false conviction and ultimate mob lynching of Jewish factory superintendent Leo Frank, accused of murdering 13-year-old Mary Phagan. The Mark Taper Forum's triumphant staging feels like a long-delayed vindication of a separate injustice: the inexplicable obscurity of this watershed musical, which evokes the rapturous sweep of grand opera.

Though it deservedly won Tonys for Uhry's literate book and Brown's extraordinary score, the uncommonly dark and challenging 1998 show hasn't gained a foothold in a marketplace dominated by frothy and formulaic fare. Director-choreographer Rob Ashford unveiled a retooled version at London's Donmar Warehouse in 2007, which he replicates here. It's leaner and more intimate than Harold Prince's slick staging for the original 1998 Broadway production. This affords a richer realization of the show's galvanizing themes: government-supported bigotry against blacks and Jews (shockingly pitted against each other), and the terrifying power of mob rule. Brown's music and lyrics—which combine ragtime, folk music, patriotic anthems, blues, gospel, and more— profoundly illuminate the personal and cultural calamities recounted here. Celebratory pageantry ironically alternates with bloodthirsty sentiments, driven by the wounded pride of defeated Civil War veterans, still embittered toward the Northern Yankees, as exemplified by Brooklyn-born outsider Frank.

The explosive story is well-served by a magnificent cast. T.R. Knight's musical theater debut as the beleaguered Frank—whose eccentricity and social isolationism contributed to the suspicions against him—is astonishing. Musically and dramatically, his is a knockout portrayal, as intellectually provocative as it is heartbreaking. Complementing Knight's nuanced interpretation is that of lovely-voiced Lara Pulver, reprising her London role of Frank's wife, Lucille. Pulver movingly depicts the courage and tenacity displayed by Lucille in seeking justice for Frank. The climactic scenes wherein Lucille and Leo break through emotional barriers in their relationship are electrifying. Of special note in the splendid ensemble are P.J.
Griffith's ruthless minister, David St. Louis as two African-American suspects in the killing, Charlotte d'Amboise as Mary's grief-stricken mother, Christian Hoff as the unprincipled prosecuting attorney, and Michael Berresse's double turns as an opportunistic journalist and the self-serving governor.

Christopher Oram's inspired set and costumes and Neil Austin's exquisite lighting capture the faded glory of the old South, as well as the story's potent aura of moral anarchy. Tom Murray's music direction is sublime. Here's hoping this shimmering production instigates a renewed interest in this neglected masterpiece.

Presented by Donmar Warehouse and Center Theatre Group at the Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A. Oct. 4–Nov. 15. Tue.–Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2:30 and 8 p.m.; Sun., 1 and 6:30 p.m. (No public performances Oct. 13–16.) (213) 628-2772.

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