Associated Press
Michael Kuchwara

NEW YORK (AP) — It’s rare, but sometimes in musical theater, everything comes together — story, music, performances — to produce moments that can’t be duplicated in any other medium.

Such an experience occurs midway through Act 1 of Parade, the ambitious new musical that opened Thursday at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater. Leo Frank, a Northern Jew, is on trial in 1913 Atlanta for murdering a 13-year-old girl, Mary Phagan. Suddenly we are thrust into explosive legal proceedings, testimony that finds extraordinary expression in song. In a series of nine musical numbers, the prosecution and defense lay out the case for and against Frank. These songs, written by talented newcomer Jason Robert Brown, distill the essence of Alfred Uhry’s adaptation, which is based on a real-life story.

Uhry, author of "Driving Miss Daisy" and "The Last Night of Ballyhoo," tells two tales here. One is the story of an outsider, a Yankee in the South only 50 years after the end of the Civil War when passions still have not cooled. The second is a love story, the relationship between Frank and his wife, Lucille. Their marriage was distant, often prickly, a union that grew and strengthened only after Frank’s arrest and incarceration. Uhry’s book is a spare and unemotional condensation of a complicated saga. Brown’s music is just as uncompromising, with few concessions to traditional musical comedy. That’s not to say it is inaccessible. There are sprawling melodies here, from ragtime to jazz to serious dramatic numbers that would not be out of place in modern American opera. And it is superbly sung, all the way down the line.

If there is any flaw in the production, it is the portrayal of the villains, personified most vividly by a scowling newspaper publisher who stalks the stage as if he were Satan himself. Parade has a fine supporting cast, but the musical is anchored by its two leading performers — Brent Carver and Carolee Carmello. Carver, a Tony winner for Kiss of the Spider Woman several seasons back, is a rarity — an accomplished actor who can sing and dance superbly. His Frank, initially a prissy, not very likable character, earns our respect and even admiration. Carmello possesses a rich, dramatic voice and tremulous smile that is immediately ingratiating. In Parade, she triumphs, creating a vulnerable character whose strength in supporting her husband never wavers.

Pulling Parade together is director Harold Prince, a fearless tackler of unconventional subjects for the musical stage. This is the man who gave us Cabaret, Sweeney Todd and Kiss of the Spider Woman. Parade is equally as difficult. Prince’s genius shows through in his rooting Parade so specifically in time and place, beginning with the musical’s opening number of a young Confederate soldier going off to war. Before the song is finished, it is a half-century later, and the youth is a grizzled army veteran still singing about the red hills of Georgia.

But then celebration of the past and the role it plays in the present is a big part of this musical, which is as much about the South as it is about Leo and Lucille Frank. No wonder Confederate Day parades march relentlessly across the wide Beaumont stage. The director receives strong support from his production team. Riccardo Hernandez’s lavish settings are dominated by a large gnarled tree that figures prominently in the musical’s tragic ending. Judith Dolan’s period costumes are elaborate but not distracting, and Howell Binkley’s theatrical lighting beautifully captures the musical’s highly charged mood changes. Parade is a soaring musical experience, a show that reaches for the stars and shines just as bright.