Cleveland Scene Magazine
Keith A. Joseph

In an age when musicals have become multimillion-dollar corporations, jerry-rigged to simulate amusement park thrills and last year’s multiplex movie hit, how thrilling it is to come across a work that uses its musical vocabulary to illumine the human complexities of social history.

Every civilized citizen owes it to himself to see Parade, the most underrated musical of the decade. This remarkable work chronicles a lynching, yet it is also a love story and an astute biography of a post-Civil War Atlanta.

Playhouse Square, atoning for its dazzling lack of imagination in endlessly resurrecting Les Miz dinosaurs, has pulled off a coup by being one of only six cities to grab this one-of-a-kind tour.

With a score by Jason Robert Brown and a book by Driving Miss Daisy’s Alfred Uhry, this is a musicalization of a sad footnote to American history. Leo Frank, an alienated young Brooklyn Jew running a pencil factory in 1913 Atlanta, is falsely accused of raping and murdering a 13-year-old girl. This horrible event is used by a people who have not stopped fighting the Civil War to reopen the battle between North and South, Jew and Christian. Frank is offered up as a scapegoat.

Musical theater has a propensity for trivializing history. Here, we see the opposite: The creators, including director Harold Prince, have reinvented the wiles of musical theater just as Orson Welles tweaked existing film technique in Citizen Kane to burn into our craniums an uncanny mélange of image, sight, and sound.

Brown, like Sondheim, composes a superb historical pastiche effect: A malicious, jubilant ragtime is used to show the town’s exaltation over a guilty verdict; a plaintive spiritual, wistfully sung by the murdered child’s mother, ends on a chill with the virulently anti-Semitic "I forgive you, Jew," expressed like a pious python. In a scene that compares to Gypsy’s "Rose’s Turn" for exposing a warped state of mind, we see the libidinous fantasies of the factory girls as they render the meek and mild Frank into a song-and-dance devil, luring innocent Christian girls into his den for deflowering ("Come up to My Office"). With fascinating historical breadth, the show begins with a young soldier going off to the Civil War, singing of the "Old Red Hills of Home," and ends with the same soldier as a defeated old veteran mournfully singing the same number, illustrating a society’s lingering shame. The Hal Prince trademarks — use of torches, stunning tableaux, and rare privileged moments, such as the ghost of the murdered child once again heading eagerly toward that Memorial Day Parade she would never make, bidding the murdered Frank a tender Happy Memorial Day — all fill the stage with images as vivid and hypnotically compelling as a propaganda poster.

Ironically, this musical suffered much the same fate as its murdered hero. Jaded reviewers, whose aesthetic senses had been ground to dust by too many bad musicals, stoned it, declaring it unfit to run among such hits as Jekyll and Hyde and Naked Boys Singing. Subsequently, it sank like a treasure galleon among Broadway’s treacherous shoals.

Thankfully, its creators were too stubborn to allow this beautifully wrought artifact to sink into the realm of barely recalled cult esoterica. As a labor of love, a road company was mounted. These traveling follow-ups usually emerge as little more than smudged mimeographs; yet, this incarnation, assembled by its original creators with the added bonus of the composer conducting the orchestra, is far more assured and vibrant than its predecessor. David Pittu makes a much more authentic kosher Leo Frank than his golden-haired Tab Hunterish predecessor. This is a company obviously smitten with its material.

Here is a work that has every right to be a cynical and nihilistic exposition of an innocent man’s destruction. Instead, it endures as a romance about a rekindled love between a condemned husband and his fiercely heroic wife, and even more important, also rekindles our love for the vast possibilities of the American musical.