USA Today
David Patrick Stearns

NEW YORK — The pursuit of justice and the agendas that drive it are unavoidably on the minds of Americans these days. That’s why Parade, a remarkable new musical that opened Thursday at Lincoln Center ( * * * 1/2 out of four), has even more punch than it might have had before President Clinton’s impeachment imbroglio.

The story — as told by director Harold Prince, playwright Alfred Uhry and composer Jason Robert Brown — although historically based, initially seems remote from our time. Leo Frank, an educated Brooklyn Jew uncomfortably living in 1914 Atlanta, is wrongly accused of killing a teen-age girl who worked in his sweatshop, and is eventually lynched by a mob.

How did it happen? Anti-Semitism, of course. Also, the murder outraged once-rich Southern families reduced to sweatshop work. Defense strategies stumbled when the unthinkable — Frank’s conviction — became real.

It’s part court drama, part whodunit, part Greek tragedy (Frank had his fatal flaws) and part pageant, with the story unfolding around Confederate Memorial Day. It boldly exploits the musical-theater medium to its fullest, fulfilling every promise implied by West Side Story, Company and other ambitious musicals that have threatened to become Broadway anomalies. Most emblematic is Brown’s score, which maintains the outlines and echoes of popular songs — from church hymns to rags — but augments them with a far richer emotional palette than could have been previously imagined.

In the first hour, the show seems chilly to a fault. Characters are sometimes established too succinctly, with the objectivity of a documentary film. And there are lots. Among them: a bigoted Civil War veteran, an opportunistic newspaper reporter and Georgia’s governor. There are odd narrative gaps. Uhry also omits an intriguing real-life element: Frank’s most virulent accuser may have been the real murderer. One thing explored to great effect is the huge North-vs.-South dichotomy among Jews, embodied by Frank’s marriage to a Southern woman he barely understands.

The show’s daringly gradual dramatic crescendo doesn’t peak until well into Act II, when Frank’s previously passive wife makes decisive moves to free her husband, launching an unorthodox love story that blossoms on separate sides of the jail bars. It climaxes in the ecstatic, wrenching duet All the Wasted Time, a supremely powerful moment.
Such moments are clearly the product of a careful five-year gestation, courtesy of the now-bankrupt Livent Inc., that allowed director Prince to do his best work, using Riccardo Hernandez’ set design — often filling out crowd scenes with eerie-looking cardboard cutouts — with blazing theatricality. More important, the production captures a world in which extremes of cruelty and gentility are possible.

The cast has a special electricity that comes from talented Broadway regulars growing into the kinds of roles they don’t normally play, such as Carolee Carmello as Frank’s steel-magnolia wife and, most of all, Canadian actor Brent Carver as Leo Frank. In his first New York appearance since Kiss of the Spider Woman, Carver confidently conveys Frank’s progression from a maladjusted elitist to a man who appreciates what little he has within his jail cell. It’s great to have him back.