The Chicago Tribune
Richard Christiansen

GREEN BAY – At the end of "Parade’s" opening night performance here at the Weidner Center for the Performing Arts, the musical’s audience was up on its feet, cheering the unusually strong touring company of this passionate, engrossing and inventive production.

The crowd’s reaction, which has been common throughout the musical’s current national tour, offered further proof that this show makes a powerful emotional connection with its viewers; and it confirms that, for all its checkered commercial history, "Parade" is getting a second chance to claim at least some of the recognition it so honorably deserves.

Originally premiered in New York in 1999 as a co-production of the not-for-profit Lincoln Center Theatre and the commercial giant Livent Inc., the musical opened to mixed reviews and a storm of financial woes that had hit the foundering Livent.

Its story – based on the true story of the lynching of a Northern Jew accused of murdering a 13-year-old white girl in the Atlanta factory he supervised in 1913 – also made it a tough sell.

By the time it received 1999 Tony Awards for best book (by Alfred Uhry) and score (Jason Robert Brown), "Parade" had closed.

Earlier this year, however, a new version mounted by Atlanta producer Christopher B. Manos took to the road in a tour that included Green Bay and also was to have brought the show to Chicago for a week’s run in September at the Cadillac Palace. But when the Palace was sold earlier this year, the new owners, the Nederlander Organization and SFX Theatrical Group, fearing poor box office, canceled the Chicago engagement.

Seeing it in Green Bay, its closest stop to Chicago, one can only regret all the more that this extraordinary musical will not be playing here. It is a full-out production, somewhat (but not much) trimmed in scenic trappings, but put together with dash and fervor by its original Broadway team, headed by director Harold Prince. It moves excitingly; its 36-person cast gives a rousing ensemble performance, and its conductor is Brown himself, leading the pit orchestra with great brio.

Its excellent principals are David Pittu, as the doomed Leo Frank, a prim, precise and unheroic little man, lost in this strange land of the South, and Andrea Burns as his wife Lucille, a Southerner herself, whose efforts to save her husband unite them in a love that is beautifully expressed in their final, heartbreaking duet, "All the Wasted Time."

The supporting cast, uniformly vigorous, includes Rick Hilsabeck as the Georgia governor whose decision to commute Frank’s sentence from death to life imprisonment precipitates the mob violence, and, in a small but powerfully performed role, Jeff Edgerton as the young Confederate soldier whose singing of "The Old Red Hills of Home" provides a haunting introduction to this tragedy of the Deep South.

This is not a tired retread of an old show; it is a vital, moving work of new musical theater, assembled and executed with high talent.

As its advertisements proclaim, "Parade" is indeed a love story, a complex love story that Pittu and Burns handle beautifully. But it is also a production that uses the traditional music theater elements of song and dance to create sociological and historical depth for its drama.

Brown’s richly varied score of ragtime, marches, recitatives, church hymns, blues and barroom ballads are entertaining in themselves, but they also heighten the tension and increase the emotional force of the story line, climaxing in the brilliant trial scene that Prince and choreographer Patricia Birch have conceived in Act One.

"Parade" is one of the most compelling examples of the new music theater in America, an attempt to further raise the musical form into a vigorous American opera.

And we’re not going to see it in Chicago.