The Philadelphia Inquirer
Clifford A. Ridley

NEW YORK; On April 26, 1913, Confedrate Memorial Day in Atlanta, a 13-year-old girl named Mary Phagan was found murdered in the basement of the pencil factory where she earned $1.20 a week.  The factory superintendent, Leo M. Frank, was convicted of the crime and sentenced to hang.  Though the evidence against him was fabricated, Frank’s credentials for execution in 1913 Georgia were too good to pass up: He was a pawn of the industrial establishment, a born Yankee, and a Jew.

Frank’s wife, Lucille, a Southern Jew raised to be subservient to her husband and to keep a low profile, began a noisy lobbying campaign on his behalf.  Two years later, it paid off: Gov. John M. Slaton, in an act of courage that ruined a promising political career, commuted Frank’s sentence to life imprisonment.  Anti-Semitic riots ensued; shortly thereafter, persons unknown spirited Frank from his prison cell, took him to a lonely orchard and lynched him.

The story, which remains a mystery (neither Mary Phagan’s nor Leo Frank’s killer was ever identified), has been told often in books, movies and plays.  Now it’s the subject of a musical, Parade, which opened Thursday at the Vivian Beaumont Theater.  With a book by Alfred Uhry (Driving Miss Daisy), a score by Broadway newcomer Jason Robert Brown, and direction by Harold Prince, the show is an unqualified success – at once an absorbing narrative, a chilling social portrait and a tender love story.

A huge, gnarled tree dominated Riccardo Hernandez’s set design, remaining on view throughout the play as a grim reminder of where matters are heading.  One of the best things about Uhry’s script, whose dialogue is both authentically Southern and consistently true to character, is that while you know how it will turn out, you remain fascinated, even hope for the best.  And in one respect at least, you don’t know how it will turn out – for, at the heart of it, Uhry has located the touching story of a man and wife, Leo and Lucile, who begin the play as virtual strangers and grow in strength and love through adversity.

Brown has written some of his loveliest music and lyrics for this pair, played by Brent Carver and Carolee Carmello with a disarming simplicity and gentleness that render their occasional crescendos of speech and song all the more powerful.  Although his score takes its inspiration from such naïve, turn-of-the-century idioms as marches, waltzes, dirges, sentimental ballads, ragtime, hymns and blues (including a dramatic chain-gang number), it’s not merely pastiche but an artful translation of an old language into modern syntax.  Expertly orchestrated by Don Sebesky, it’s a keeper from start to finish.

Starting with a sweet, soulful anthem sung by a young Civil War soldier and echoed by his older, redneck alter ego, the score offers something for many of the characters – including Mary (and her beau), the governor, the unprincipled prosecutor, the anti-Semitic newspaper publisher, the reporter who finally has a story worth reporting, the black people puzzled to discover that for once, the story isn’t about them.

Sometimes the songs join in ironic counterpoint, their singers positioned far from each other.  Irony, in fact, abounds in the production – and nowhere more so than in the hallucinatory trial scene where the lies told about Leo Frank are sung and acted as if they had actually occurred, including a turn by Leo himself as a grotesquely maniacal seducer.

Which brings me to the staging by Harold Prince, returning to Broadway at the very top of his form.  Prince’s unique stamp is on everything in the show – but especially on how the action not only alternates between large moments and small ones, using a scrim that effectively cuts the stage in half, but does so in thoroughly unexpected ways.

Many of Prince’s best effects owe much to the dramatic lighting of Howell Binkley, and Judith Dolan’s costumes root the play in a period when formality hadn’t yet given way to the excess of the ‘20’s.  Patricia Birch’s choreography is everywhere organic, emerging naturally from the action.  Like Ragtime, which it somewhat resembles (and which also was developed by the now-bankrupt Livent producing organization of Canada), Parade is a musical with a mind, a thrilling show that digs deep into American history and unearths both shame and nobility.  It’s musical theater at its very finest.