The Commercial Appeal [Memphis, TN]
Linda Romine

Seventy-six trombones don’t lead this PARADE.

Rather, it’s a lynch mob of anti-Semitic, Southern bigots.

Set in Georgia in 1913, PARADE is based on the true story of the murder of 13-year-old Mary Phagan, an innocent girl who worked at a pencil-making factory for 10 cents an hour.  Leo Frank, a Yankee transplant to the South who is the company’s Jewish accountant, is wrongly charged with the girl’s death and sent to jail.

The dramatic musical version of these events is the basis of PARADE, director Harold Prince’s 1999 Tony Award-winning Broadway production written by Pulitzer Prize-winner Alfred Uhry (Driving Miss Daisy) with music and lyrics by the rising young phenomenon Jason Robert Brown.

A national touring production of PARADE premiered in Atlanta last week before heading to Memphis.  Unfortunately for the outstanding cast, technical glitches marred an otherwise spellbinding opening-night performance Tuesday at the Orpheum.

Intermittent shrieks of feedback and the hissing of sound systems were audible at a few points during the production.  Props were noisily dropped on several occasions, and at one point during a scene change, crew members had such difficulty repositioning scaffolding that their grunts of effort were heard by the audience in the first few rows.

That said, PARADE is, nonetheless, an utterly enthralling, if somber, piece of musical theater in which such important issues as prejudice, race, loyalty and love are plumbed with unusual profundity and meaning.

David Pittu stars as Leo, the lovable little man who feels like a fish out of water, being a Jew from Brooklyn in the American South.  As mistrusted for his neurotic mannerisms as he is misunderstood, Leo struggles incredulously to defend himself against a murder he didn’t commit.

Andrea Burns starts as his pretty young bride of two years, Lucille.  A true Southern belle with a honeyed laugh and a peaches-and-cream complexion, she evolves from a cheerfully submissive wife into a resilient, strong-willed woman show fights to the end for her marriage – and her way of life.

Both co- stars are excellent in their leading roles, commanding our attention with their poignant performances and highly emotive singing. Burns, in particular, possesses a hauntingly beautifully voice that rings throughout the Orpheum with crystalline clarity and purity.

Virtually every supporting role in PARADE is equally compelling.  Standouts are Randy Redd as newspaper reporter Britt Craig, whose big number, "Big News", is a jazzy ragtime show-stopper made all the more entertaining because he is so convincingly inebriated throughout the singing and dancing.

Kristin Bowden, making her professional debut, is memorable as the slain girl.  Keith Byron Kirk, meanwhile, is ominously captivating as Jim Conley, whose shouted singing and cathartic cries from the chain gang send chills up the spine.

All other aspects of this production enhance the dramatic events unfolding on stage.  Scenery by Riccardo Hernandez is dominated by a huge, gnarled bare tree trunk.  Rising up from the right side of the stage floor, its twisted, heavy boughs arch metaphorically across the top of the stage. Lighting is particularly effective, with the vast Georgia sky taking on the form of bucolic, cloud-filled blues and whites, to blood-red sunsets that emblazon the stage with a hot and hateful intensity.

Conducted by Brown, the orchestra is flawless.  In fact, autograph seekers hovered near the orchestra pit after the show’s conclusion – and standing ovation – and the bearded young composer willingly obliged.

PARADE continues through Sunday at the Orpheum.