Charles Isherwood

The facts are there in black and white, as the saying goes, and Parade, the musical that presents them, is painted in the same stark color scheme. A show whose singularly inapt title belies the dolor that is its keynote, Parade closes the fall season on a decidedly somber and somehow appropriate chord — Broadway hasn’t exactly been a festive place in recent months.

The new musical, a co-production between Lincoln Center Theater and the troubled Livent, marks the Broadway debut of an already accomplished young composer and lyricist, Jason Robert Brown, working with an old master, Harold Prince, who co-conceived and directed the show. It’s rich in subtle and appealing melodies that draw on a variety of influences, from pop-rock to folk to rhythm and blues and gospel. The performances of stars Brent Carver and Carolee Carmello are valiant, vocally and dramatically, and the staging is marked by Princely intelligence and economy.

But even with strong reviews, commercial prospects for this relentlessly serious show will be limited. It’s like Ragtime without all the nice characters and uplift, and even at its most musically lively, Parade is dramatically inert. A simply told tale of victim and villains, its moral positions are hammered home with dogged insistence, and its unhappy ending seems to be quietly present in every scene.

Indeed it is quietly present in every scene: Riccardo Hernandez’s attractive but gloomy sets are dominated by the heft of a giant, leafless, portentous-looking tree that stays rooted in place throughout the show as smaller pieces are arrayed around it to suggest factory, courtroom, prison. If you’re at all familiar with the true story the musical relates, you’ll know just how that tree comes grimly into play.

The facts are these: In 1913, Leo Frank (Carver), a Jewish factory supervisor from Brooklyn, was working in an Atlanta pencil factory when one of his employees, a 13-year-old girl named Mary Phagan, was found murdered on the premises. Suspicion fell easily on the outsider, and Frank was charged with the crime, quickly convicted on scant and suspect evidence and sentenced to die. When the Georgia governor commuted his sentence to life imprisonment in 1915, a mob kidnapped him from the prison where he was being held and lynched him.

The creators of Parade — Brown, Prince and book writer Alfred Uhry — open the musical some years before, as a young Confederate soldier sets off to fight in the Civil War for the glory of the South, singing a tender folk song extolling "The Old Red Hills of Home." As the song fades into another anthem, at which Southerners commemorate the war with a parade, the young soldier turns into an old one, now minus a leg and filled with resentment.

Can it be a coincidence of casting that the actor who plays the embittered, crippled Confederate soldier, the worthy Don Chastain, will later be recognizable as the judge who tries the Frank case? It’s doubtful, such is the general heaviness of Parade‘s touch.

Both Uhry’s book and Brown’s lyrics point up with some amusing early jokes the anomaly of being Jewish in the South (a subject Uhry of course explored more fully, and more lightheartedly, in The Last Night of Ballyhoo, but the uneasy conclusion implicit in the jokes is that it’s morally to be Jewish than Southern. (In "How Can I Call This Home?," Leo sings that the people around him "belong in zoos.") In Parade, Southerners are depicted as bigots with stunted morals, both en masse (cheering on the Confederate flag at the parade, singing of a "way of life that’s pure") and, in particular, as prosecutor and politicians railroad Leo to prison.

That may be a defensible position — history is what it is — but it makes for less than nuanced drama. After a few short scenes that set up the milieu and Leo’s loving but conflicted relationship with his wife Lucille (Carmello), Leo is taken into custody (we never learn much about why he’s the natural suspect — perhaps the beat cops had already read the musical’s book). Almost immediately, the forces of evil begin to array themselves against him.

This is the rare musical that boasts more bad guys than reprises. There’s Hugh Dorsey (Herndon Lackey), the ambitious prosecutor who’s looking to manufacture evidence to fit his suspect ("He smells of it," Dorsey snarls); the drunk Yankee reporter Britt Craig (Evan Pappas), who plays fast and loose with the first sensational story he’s come upon in some time; the fervently anti-Semitic Christian newspaper publisher Tom Watson (John Leslie Wolfe), who rouses the ignorant hordes to call for the quick capture of Mary’s killer; and the weak-willed Gov. Slaton (John Hickok). Only slightly less destructive is Frank’s good-old-boy lawyer Luther Rosser (J.B. Adams).

The first act finale is Leo’s travesty of a trial (before a jury of cardboard figures, to hammer the point home), a series of musical numbers that divides a virtuosic variety of song styles among witnesses and participants. Though the appeal of Brown’s music is undeniable, and it’s all brilliantly orchestrated by Don Sebesky and lyrically conducted by Eric Stern, it’s hard to take unalloyed pleasure in a score that so thoroughly depicts human mendacity, stupidity, opportunism and cruelty. On the surface, the musical heavily condemns the venality and bigotry that led to the tragedy, but it’s hard not to feel that it’s somehow also celebrating them, since most of the musical is devoted to exploring the processes by which Frank is railroaded to prison and ultimately murdered.

In speaking of the story’s appeal, Prince and Uhry have emphasized the evolving relationship between Leo and Lucille, but that story is overwhelmed by the terrible drama that surrounds it (too much of the second act is spent revealing what was made abundantly clear in the first: that Leo got a bum rap). You can hear the creators straining to keep a strong focus on Leo and Lucille, but when Leo sings in the second act of his surprise and joy at how his wife stood by him, you can’t see it as a major emotional victory — since we’ve been pummeled with the ugly way in which Leo was unjustly convicted, it would be rather monstrous if Lucille hadn’t.

Carver gives an impressive, carefully detailed performance as Leo Frank, a role that’s probably factually impeccable but unsympathetic. Leo is depicted as a smart, slightly supercilious and fastidious man whose first reaction to being thrown in prison on a murder charge is to complain about the food. Carmello’s vibrant vocalizing and warm presence flesh out the simple contours of her part, but some of the villains have as much stage time as she does, making it difficult to create a fully rounded portrait. Other performances, in mostly single-note parts, are all exemplary.

But the creators’ attempts to play up the love story in the background of a horror show point up the conceptual difficulty that ultimately hamstrings the show’s appeal. Why set to music a story whose hard and distasteful facts can accommodate little of the nuance and color and joy — to say nothing of beauty — that music could bring? The pleasures in Brown’s melodies leave a bitter trace because they’re often in the service of lyrics that expose humanity at its ugliest. (When a fire-and-brimstone anthem is sung by the evil Tom Watson to rouse the hordes against Frank, the audience duly applauds the musical vigor of tune and performance, but we’re also cheering a lynch mob.)

Irony is not a musical device, but a literary one; when music soars, the heart wants to join it. As Parade ends with another choral hymn sung by Southerners at a parade, the music seduces us when our sensibilities should be repulsed. A man has just been hanged, after all. The paradox leaves you with a sour aftertaste. Indeed, while nothing about this production is less than accomplished, Parade might still be called the feel-bad musical of the year.