New York Newsday
Linda Winer

ABOUT TWO-thirds of the way through the first handsome act of "Parade," which opened Thursday night at Lincoln Center Theater, something happens that makes us stop merely admiring the show and start connecting deeply to it.

In that moment, as the Atlanta factory girls are testifying in court that their boss is a sexual predator, the accused — a pinched, distant, college-educated Yankee Jew named Leo Frank — suddenly gets up from his seat, slithers around his good-old-boy lawyer to get closer to the girls and launches into a joyfully, creepily lascivious vaudeville routine. It is a startling image, a wildly hallucinatory fantasy that, as performed by the awesome Brent Carver, makes us sit up straighter and start expecting the unexpected from a musical that has heretofore seemed awfully noble — rather like a classy paint-by-numbers entry in the pageant of historical injustice.

From then on, we’re hooked. "Parade," a co-production of Lincoln Center and the now-bankrupt Livent Inc., is not just the only new musical of the fall season. It is one of the most gratifying serious book musicals in a long time (and that includes Livent’s similarly intentioned "Ragtime"). Yes, the show about Frank’s infamous 1913 murder trial is more than a little high-minded and sometimes a bit tastefully solemn. But the noose, so to speak, begins to tighten at that moment, as misgivings are overwhelmed by the power of good storytelling and consummate stagecraft.

With direction by Harold Prince, a book by Alfred Uhry and support from the company that also backed Prince’s "Showboat," the musical may have seemed to be a sure thing — or as sure as a thing can be that’s about the lynching of a Jew in the burgeoning New South. But Prince, who got most of his 20 Tony Awards with unlikely subjects for singing, and Uhry, with his Pulitzer Prize for "Driving Miss Daisy" and his Tony for "The Last Night of Ballyhoo," put their faith in a wild card — a virtually untried young lyricist-composer named Jason Robert Brown. And the man turns out to be the real thing, a theater creature who understands how to get under the skin of traditional American song forms and make them sing with the nervous rhythms of today.

The big yet intimate show has been beautifully cast, mostly with unknowns, and, except for the strangely familiar start, directed with all the cumulative mastery that brains and talent can ignite. Then there is Carver, who won his Tony for his radically different performance as the transvestite in Prince’s "Kiss of the Spider Woman." His Leo is so different he could be another species altogether. A fish out of water, a Jew out of Brooklyn, Leo is a cautious, somewhat superior man with a seemingly safe job as manager of a pencil factory and a seemingly convenient marriage to Lucille (the splendid Carolee Carmello), one of Uhry’s vintage assimilating, ambivalent southern Jews.
Uhry, whose family actually knew Frank in Atlanta, makes sure from the start that we have a context for the horror that transcends knee-jerk redneck bigotry. After a boyish Civil War soldier’s opening ballad, "The Old Red Hills of Home," we fast-forward to the New South, where resentments of Yankees and industrialists are focusing on the strange Jew who oversees the children in the sweatshops. Three Confederate Memorial Days frame the two years of the Frank case, and the parades that pass have the dreamlike lyricism of a slow-motion twirling baton.

Some of the people on the floats are cardboard cutouts, and for a while we fear the characters will share their dimensions. Riccardo Hernandez’ fluid and functional but self-effacing sets seem almost stingy compared to Broadway’s usual spectacle-mongering displays. Soon, however, the characters begin to take life within the onstage world, and the gnarled hanging tree in the center stops telegraphing its intentions like a scream.
Brown’s score is a taut, entertaining combination of influences, including the jagged, wistful rhythms of Charles Ives and the sardonic Tin Pan Alley comic relief in "Big News," for Evan Pappas’ exuberantly depressed reporter, Britt Craig. There are quasi-hymns and a scary spiritual, "Where Will You Stand When the Flood Comes?" for the villains — John Leslie Wolfe’s dangerously righteous publisher Tom Watson and Herndon Lackey’s serpentine prosecutor Hugh Dorsey. Rufus Bonds Jr. is thrilling as Jim Conley, the devious black janitor, whose chain-gang blues, "Feel the Rain Fall," combines the best of the score with Prince’s most stirring visual poetry. There’s an almost-Sondheim art song, "This Is Not Over Yet" for Leo and Lucille, who are also unfortunately saddled with the score’s only unworthy, tear-out-your-guts song, their final love duet, "All the Wasted Time." Patricia Birch’s cakewalks and other period choreography go effectively for ironic contradictions in tone, especially for "Pretty Music," where Lucille corners the governor (John Hickok) at a political dance.

Mostly, we keep coming back to Carver’s Leo, whose voice must rise touchingly, painfully high for his inadequate self-defense, "It’s Hard to Speak My Heart." Ultimately — the true test of a predetermined story — we keep holding out some hope that, somehow, through the magic of theater, things will not turn out as we know they must.