St. Paul Pioneer Press
Dominic P. Papatola

Alfred Uhry says that, when he told the story of Leo Frank to Harold Prince, the famed Broadway director insisted that it would be a terrific idea for a musical.

Not to cast aspersions on Mr. Prince and his 20 Tony Awards, but I don’t get it: The tale of the transplanted Northern Jew charged with murdering a 13-year-old girl and then lynched by an angry mob doesn’t exactly set toes a-tappin’.

The story raises a bevy of heavyweight questions: Was anti-Semitism in the South in 1913 so virulent that it would make authorities overlook a black man who was also implicated in the crime? Or was Frank, who ran an Atlanta pencil factory, pursued for other reasons — because he was a Yankee; because he represented industrialization in the agrarian South; because he used child labor? And, most basic of all, did Frank commit the crime?

"Parade," written by Uhry, directed by Prince with music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown, answers that last question with a resounding "no." But the production, now playing the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts, struggles so hard to deal with all those other issues — plus trying like heck to be a good musical — that it doesn’t really succeed on either score.

Brown, who won a Tony for "Parade" and is considered one of Broadway’s promising young musical-theater talents, provides a score that’s admirable and tuneful, if somewhat bloated. The show begins with a stirring anthem, "The Old Red Hills of Home," and ranges all over the emotional landscape without feeling manipulative.

That emotional athleticism occasionally goes overboard. Where the teasing, Southern-fried "The Picture Show" perfectly captures the tone and mood of the teen-agers singing it, "Real Big News," sung by a journalist who’s the show’s off-again, on-again narrator, feels oversized for a middle-of-the-act number. The overwrought "You Don’t Know This Man," sung by an anguished Mrs. Frank, sounds histrionic compared to the simple, supple "My Child Will Forgive Me," delivered by the slain girl’s mother.

Playwright Uhry, a Triple Crown winner (there’s a Pulitzer, an Oscar and a couple of Tonys on his shelf), is even less certain. He spends the first act developing Leo Frank as a scrupulously honest but cold, superior and high-handed man railroaded through a Southern-style justice system. Early in Act Two, though, Leo suddenly warms, and the show becomes a love story set in the shadow of the gallows.

There doesn’t seem to be much reason for this transformation, except that it allows Brown to pen a couple of tunes — the joyous "This Is Not Over Yet" and a soaring ballad, "All the Wasted Time" — that it’s impossible to imagine the First Act Leo would sing.

For all that, Uhry draws characters that are more interesting than musical theater usually provides, and those characters are brought to life well in this touring production.

He’s clearly a victim of injustice and prejudice, but most of the time, Leo Frank is such a self-important schmuck that he doesn’t elicit much sympathy. David Pittu realizes this and hones Leo to a tight, hard point. That sharpness makes him superbly believable in the first act but not quite credible in the second.

Andrea Burns plays Lucille Frank, a blushing Southern belle galvanized into action by the accusations against her husband. Her performance doesn’t call for as much emotional range, but Burns’ voice is a lovely instrument to deliver Brown’s tunes.

In history, Jim Conley was a black man coached by the defense to give damning evidence against Frank. In the musical, Keith Byron Kirk is a wonder — a swaggering, supremely confident presence whose sung testimony in the courtroom enlivens the first act. The rumbly voiced John Leslie Wolfe is a force of pure evil as the anti-Semitic publisher who stirs up the masses against Frank.

Can a musical be both an emotional downer and a hit? Sometimes – the Guthrie turned the trick last season with "Sweeney Todd," and zillions of people have cried their eyes out at "Les Miserables." But while the story of Leo Frank is worthy of dramatization, its density makes it a hard sell for a musical.