The New York Times
Ben Brantley

NEW YORK — The tree is a sermon in itself. A big, sturdy oak with serpentine limb s, it’s the first thing the audience sees in "Parade," the solemn, high-reaching new musical directed by Harold Prince that opened Thursday night at the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center.

The oak’s branches glow, in sinister abstraction, through a scrim before a single note is sung, and it will be a dominant presence throughout the evening, casting a metaphoric shadow that is both premonitory and admonitory. A man, a good man, will be hanged from that tree before "Parade" is over. It is the image of a brutally unfair fate awaiting its victim, and we are never, ever allowed to forget what it signifies.

Not that we would have anyway. One thing "Parade" cannot be accused of is fuzziness of focus. Inspired by the story of Leo Frank, a Jewish man who was lynched in Marietta, Ga., in 1915 for the murder of a 13-year-old girl, this musical provides a painstakingly rendered chart of the wheels of injustice. And it never lets up in its insistence on the innocence, on several levels, of its protagonist and the moral blindness and corruption of his persecutors.

That the result is often more podium-thumping screed than compelling story is in itself a heartbreaker. "Parade" prompted raised eyebrows and arch jokes (have you heard the one about the dancing lynch mob?) long before it went into previews, and the involvement of Livent Inc., the financially ailing Canadian-based theatrical company, as one of its producers only added to the air of gallows humor.

Yet "Parade" also represented the possibility of answered prayers for anxious lovers of the American musical. The genre, after all, is represented this season in new productions on Broadway only by the flaccid "Footloose" and the revivals of "Peter Pan" and "On the Town," and this is by no means an atypical season.

Here at last was a show of daring aspiration, shaped by a young composer of talent and invention, Jason Robert Brown, and a Pulitzer-Prize winning playwright, Alfred Uhry ("Driving Miss Daisy"). What’s more, it was to be overseen by the director who had done more than any other to extend the boundaries of the Broadway musical and to confound expectations of what the form’s proper subject matter is.

The rise of the Nazi party, a portrait of marital disharmony set in the gloom of a decrepit show palace, the rise of a politician and his ravenously ambitious wife in Argentina, a homicidal barber in Victorian London: Prince repeatedly turned ostensibly sour material into scintillating theater with his fabled productions of "Cabaret" (1966), "Follies" (1971), "Evita" (1978) and "Sweeney Todd" (1979).

As recently as 1993, he was still breathing hit-making musical life into unlikely themes with "The Kiss of the Spider Woman," the Kander-Ebb show about South American political prisoners that joltingly juxtaposed cinematic fantasy sequences with scenes of barbaric torture. Given this context, is "Parade" really such a stretch, especially given the participation of its star, Brent Carver, who appeared to such resonant effect in "Spider Woman"?

That Carver, through no fault of his own, is a far less compelling presence here says much about what has gone wrong with "Parade." As the gay, escapist story spinner forced into political engagement in "Spider Woman," this first-rate actor guided his audiences through the labyrinth of one man’s very conflicted interior. The role of Leo Frank in "Parade" offers him no such opportunities.

The character, a Jewish scapegoat in a blood-lusting Southern society, is a martyr, pure and simple, a man whose worst crimes are emotional reserve and fastidiousness. Carver renders these traits, in both his singing and acting, with delicacy. But there’s no getting beyond the impression that his Leo is as flat and iconic as a bleeding saint in a religious mural.

With the exception of Carolee Carmello, who gives a stirringly heartfelt performance as Leo’s wife, Lucille, all of the actors in "Parade" appear claustrophobicly trapped in that mural. It is sometimes hard to distinguish them from the two-dimensional cutout figures used to fill out the crowd scenes in Riccardo Hernandez’s visually arresting but oddly distancing set, in which only vistas of picturesque landscapes give off any warmth at all.
Correspondingly, Brown’s songs, while artfully shading classic hymn and march forms with dark dissonance, also keep you at an intellectual remove. He has a tendency to use martial drumbeats and knell-like chords to underscore his melody lines, and the devices give the effect of someone continually whispering in your ear: "Look at what these people are doing to a blameless man. Just look."

Several people involved with the creation of "Parade," which has been incubating for six years, have said that its real center is the love story of the Franks, partners in a sterile arranged marriage w ho finally fall in love during Leo’s trial and imprisonment. Yet in the performance, the balance of the show is elsewhere.

The evening’s first act is devoted almost entirely to the mechanics of framing Frank and the agitating of popular sentiment against a social outsider by a yellow press. As a jaded journalist, played by Evan Papas, sings, shortly after Leo’s arrest, "Take a superstitious city and a little Jew from Brooklyn with a college education and a mousy little wife."
That’s the recipe, all right. From the beginning, both Uhry’s book and Brown’s lyrics baldly set up Frank’s status as an alien, with references to his disdain for Southern cooking and tendency, as a song lyric puts it, to say "shalom" instead of "howdy." When Mary Phagan (the appealing Christy Carlson Romano), a teen-age worker in the National Pencil Factory where Frank is a superintendent, is found murdered in the factory’s basement, the police immediately fix an accusatory gaze on the exotic Frank.

Thus begins a streamlined railroading process of the sort that has become common fodder for socially sensitive television movies of the week. The expediency of pinning the crime on Leo is established through a series of scenes in which blatantly corrupt politicians say things like: "You got a lousy conviction record, Hughie. How long you think they’re going to keep you in office if you let this one off the hook?"

The citizens of Atlanta grow ever louder in their cries for vengeance, goaded by a satanic newspaper publisher, Tom Watson (John Leslie Wolfe), who is given to statements like "Jesus was not a Jew." An ambitious prosecuting attorney, Hugh Dorsey (Herndon Lackey), is seen cutting a deal with a black factory janitor with a prison record (Jim Conley, who brings some flair and fire to the proceedings) to testify against Frank
When three young female factory employees show up in court to speak of Frank’s lascivious behavior toward them, you have no doubt that they have been coached to lie, despite an all-too-brief fantasy interlude in which Frank becomes the leering, worldly figure of their testimony. (The vignette provides what is by far the best work of Carver and the choreographer Patricia Birch in the show.) As Lucille sings passionately to a reporter: "He is a decent man! He is an honest man!"

As any number of Alfred Hitchcock movies confirm, "wrong man" plots, even rudimentary ones, can generate alarming levels of suspense. But to do so, they have either to admit you, Kafka-style, into the baffled, frightened mind of the per secuted or to sweep you up into the frenzy of the persecutors, making you feel vicariously implicated. That was the strategy of "They Won’t Forget," the 1937 Mervyn LeRoy film inspired by the same events.

Yet even as Prince and Ms. Birch use the ensemble to create tableaux of tidal waves of crowds, in
ways that recall the mob scenes in "Evita," you never escape an overriding feeling of disdain, a chilly indignation. Nor is Leo ever allowed to doubt himself, to wonder (as most of us surely would) if he had somehow gone mad. The shy Lucille is clearly tortured by the public scrutiny of herself and her husband, but she also never seems to wonder if her husband might indeed be guilty.

Ms. Carmello nonetheless creates a vital and affecting portrait of a sheltered woman thrust out into a harsh and dangerous world. Made up and dressed to look a bit like Eleanor Roosevelt (the period-appropriate costumes are by Judith Dolan), the actress’ very accent and vocal inflections bespeak both a heritage of Southern Jewish gentility and a fluttery primness that never quite conceals a yearning for a more fully lived life.
The second act is mostly hers, as Lucille convinces Georgia’s governor, John Slaton (John Hickok), to reopen her husband’s case. Though much of what follows has the feeling of a historical detective story, there is something infinitely touching about the valiant hope that Ms. Carmello projects. In her climactic love duet, during a conjugal visit to Leo in prison just before his abduction and murder by a mob symbolically commanded by a Confederate Civil War veteran, you suddenly feel you’ve been given emotional entry to a show that has determinedly kept you outside of it.

That moment arrives too late. The death of Leo Frank may be an unlikely subject for a musical, but that is not what sabotages "Parade." Musicals can be grim and even grotesque as long as they let you feel their heartbeat, the pulse that animates the behavior onstage. You need only think of "Sweeney Todd," which drew its audience into improbable identification with its crazed, murderous title character.

In this sense, the odds are comparatively in favor of "Parade." It arrives with an innately sympathetic hero, undoubtedly worthy of our tears. But for those tears to flow, we have to get to know Leo Frank as a man, not a symbol. The civics lesson that is "Parade" forbids our ever approaching such knowledge.