Hoof ‘n’ Horn Through April 20

In Georgia in 1915, the murder trial, conviction, and subsequent abduction and lynching of Jewish-American factory superintendent Leo Max Frank fomented widespread ethnic and racial hatreds. This would have profound, lasting effects on Southern politics and culture.

After an exultant mob celebrated Frank’s public hanging, documenting it in photographic postcards, newsreels and other grisly souvenirs, half of Georgia’s estimated 3,000 Jews fled the state. Three months after Frank’s death, his murderers burned a giant cross atop Stone Mountain, marking the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan.

Few events would seem less likely candidates for a Broadway musical. But composer Jason Robert Brown and playwright Alfred Uhry’s PARADE won Tony Awards for best book and original score in 1999, although the work premiered to less than universal acclaim. Perhaps unavoidably, some stitching also shows in this Hoof ‘n’ Horn production, a Duke Theater Studies senior distinction project by director Drew Klingner.

Nicholas Wetherbee convinces in the central role. His Leo Frank is a fastidious Brooklynite and a fish out of water, bewildered by Southern culture and his Southern Jewish wife, Lucille (a strong Mary Kate Francis). In “How Can I Call This Home?” Leo complains that Southern men belong in zoos. “I’m trapped inside this life/And trapped beside a wife/Who would prefer that I said ‘Howdy,’ not ‘Shalom,’” he laments.

The easy flirtation in a winning early sequence with Mary Phagan (an engaging Jenna Lanz) and frustrated suitor Frankie (Chris Waybill) finds contrast later when Frankie testifies at Frank’s trial for Phagan’s murder.

Leading up to the trial, three characters feed the xenophobia and racism of the crowds. Prosecutor Hugh Dorsey (a hard-nosed Andrew Jacobs) wants an expedient conviction, while former U.S. Representative Tom Watson (Tyler Pease) seeks a way back into power. Most cynical is reporter Britt Craig, who sees the trial as his ticket out of a dull town for news. Zack Fowler channels his inner Rush Limbaugh in a sardonic reading of the character.

But Uhry’s attempts at painting so broad a historical canvasincluding a needless prologue set some 50 years beforesacrifice depth in many characters and relationships on stage. Lucille’s second act complaint, “Do it Alone,” adds dimension to her role, but her late duet with Leo, “All the Wasted Time,” simply seems dilatory.

In “This is Not Over Yet,” a convicted and condemned Frank learns that his case will be re-opened. But it’s oversold here, as Klingner directs Wetherbee to suddenly cast off all the cares of a man still facing the death penalty. Strong supporting work by Alex Bruson as unreliable witness Jim Conley and Ethan Dunn as Governor Slatonthe only Southern man of conscience on stagebuttresses a courtroom drama which reduces too many roles to little more than stock characters.

This article appeared in print with the headline “Mob Mentality”