New York Daily News
Fintan O'Toole

Whoever thought that the lynching of a Jewish man in Georgia in 1915 is a proper subject for a musical? They might as well try to make a musical of Oklahoma’s struggle for statehood or the experiences of a British teacher at the court of the King of Siam.

The truth, of course, is that there are no bad subjects, only bad writers. In the right hands, the musical can be shaped to any story. "Parade," in the steady and nimble hands of veteran director Harold Prince and playwright Alfred Uhry ("Driving Miss Daisy", "The Last Night of Ballyhoo"), demonstrates this triumphantly. Admittedly, it does deal with a particularly bleak episode of history. "Oklahoma!" or "The King and I" don’t build up to the grisly death of the main character. But "Parade" looks death and injustice in the face, and chooses to affirm life and humanity.

In one sense, "Parade" occupies familiar ground. It deals with the case of Leo Frank, convicted of murdering a young girl in a pencil factory, reprieved by a brave and conscience-sticken governor, but seized and hanged by organized bigots. This basic story has been told many times, most recently in the miniseries "The Murder of Mary Phagan" and in David Mamet’s novel "The Old Religion." But Uhry’s superbly skillful book makes it fresh, clear and surprisingly theatrical. It works because Uhry and Prince exploit the great advantage of the musical form — the way it can move naturally from the epic to the intimate, from the big social picture to the small, private details.

The world of the Old South, still locked into the Civil War and Dixie nostalgia, is brilliantly established by weaving the action around Atlanta’s Confederate Memorial Day Parade. The society in which the story unfolds is established with a few bold brushstrokes: blacks at the bottom, poor whites like the murdered Mary Phagan in the middle, wealthy elite at the top. On this large canvas, "Parade" zooms in on the odd, fragile and ultimately very moving relationship of Lucille and Leo Frank, perfectly played by Carolee Carmello and Brent Carver. Crucially, they are not conceived as Jewish martyrs. Carmello and Carver create rich and fascinating portraits of people with complex motivations. Carver’s Leo is a cold fish, obsessive, neurotic and sarcastic, the kind of man who might conceivably have committed a terrible crime.

Adding to the interest in their relationship is the fact that it is only after he is imprisoned that Carmello’s Lucille is able to blossom. The events that undo him prove to be the making of her. When Leo and Lucille’s marriage becomes, in the end, a love story, it is much more moving for being so unlikely. Jason Robert Brown’s songs serve this story rather than the other way around, but there is no shame in that. There is no outstanding show-stopping number. But the lyrics are consistently smart. Moreover, Brown weaves the musical traditions of the South — blues, jazz, country and hymns — into a vividly dramatic tapestry of sound.

Most of all, "Parade" is a reminder that so long as Prince’s consummate gifts are available, the good old days of the intelligent, ambitious musical will not be over. Watching this masterly fusion of seriousness and entertainment, those directors who pride themselves on creating cynical pap might be tempted to hang themselves for shame.