The Dallas Morning News
Lawson Taitte

Wish you could have heard George Gershwin play Rhapsody in Blue? Or been at an early performance of West Side Story? Then get down to the Music Hall at Fair Park quick.

The Dallas Summer Musicals opened Parade there Tuesday. If we’re lucky, this remarkable show lights the way to the future of the American lyric theater. The superb actors just left the hands of the greatest living director of musicals, Harold Prince, two weeks ago. The score’s brilliant composer, Jason Robert Brown, is urging on an incredible performance as the pit conductor.

Eighteen months ago playwright Alfred Uhry and Mr. Brown brought their show to New York, where it fought financial flimflammery and critical obtuseness valiantly but to little avail. Parade closed before the two of them won Tony Awards for their work.

The wholehearted faith of Mr. Prince, who also directed The Phantom of the Opera and many of Stephen Sondheim’s major efforts, helped convince backers to mount a tour anyway. Passionate conviction is perhaps the rarest commodity in the commercial American theater. It’s positively unheard of in a musical. But that’s what Parade has to offer.

The show is admittedly a hard sell because its subject matter sounds so grim. Mr. Uhry based it on an infamous 1913 case in his hometown, Atlanta. Leo Frank, a Jewish man from Brooklyn who had come to Georgia to manage a sweatshop, is convicted of raping and murdering a young factory employee. When the governor postpones the execution because he mistrusts the evidence, a bigoted mob lynches the prisoner.

Such a bald description, though, misses the essence of Parade. The musical tells the deepest and most poignant love story – it’s just easy to miss because the lovers are already married when the story begins. Leo and Lucille Frank have a comfortable but distant marriage before he is dragged off to jail. At first she panics from all the negative publicity and even begins to doubt her husband’s innocence. But finally she becomes his biggest champion and a much more loved and loving wife.

Andrea Burns’ Lucille makes the touring production even better than the New York original. Ms. Burns acts more subtly and sings even more gloriously than the wonderful Carolee Carmello, who earned a Tony nomination for her Broadway interpretation. With Ms. Burns in the role, Lucille glows with an inner fervor and beauty that makes her one of the most winning characters in an American musical.

As Leo, David Pittu acts with great force and manages the difficult music with credit. We see the man gradually melt from the cold and nervous stranger he is at the beginning. Leo becomes a political symbol and almost a secular saint. Mr. Pittu lets us see and believe all this without becoming a bore.

The thing about Parade is that it has so many interesting characters, all of whom have something fresh and new to sing. You might imagine it impossible to turn such a story into music, but Mr. Brown has done so ingeniously. The spirit of the Confederacy is embodied in a folklike anthem. False witnesses and sensationalist reporters conspire in ragtime. The governor courts his female constituents in a two-step.

Mr. Brown, like all smart theater composers, saves his best numbers for last. A black witness, now on a chain gang, sings raw-boned country blues when he gets a visit from the governor. The racist newspaper publisher ignites a rabble-rousing, angrily angular tune. And Lucille and Frank have a final, heart-breaking love song.

No musical before Parade tries to cram so much realistic plot, filled with political irony and subtle moral thinking, into 2 1/2 hours. It’s as well-crafted – and as melodic – as any opera. But the melodies don’t sound operatic. They’re drawn from the great traditions of American popular music.

Maybe it’s fitting that Parade‘s vindication should come from a tour that begins in the South. We get a kick out of Mr. Uhry’s Southern Jewish belle jokes. We know these people. We know how they should sing.

Performance information
Parade, presented by the Dallas Summer Musicals at Fair Park Music Hall Tuesdays through Sundays through July 9. Music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown. Directed by Harold Prince. Choreography by Patricia Birch. Sets by Riccardo Hernandez. Costumes by Judith Dolan. Lighting by Howell Binkley. Sound by Duncan Edwards. Tickets $9 to $55. Call Ticketmaster at 214-631-2787 or metro 972-647-5700.