The Houston Chronicle
Michael Sommers

NEW YORK – An intense, story-driven musical powered by an impassioned score, "Parade” could easily be one of the sagas of "Ragtime.”

Yet this important new musical now playing at the Vivian Beaumont Theater presents a darker and more disturbing depiction of American social history than Ragtime, with nothing in the way of a happy ending. A true-life account of injustice generated by a wave of anti- Semitism that swept across Atlanta in 1913, Parade tells the tragic story of Leo Frank.

A mild-mannered Brooklyn-born Jew, Frank was accused of molesting and murdering a teen-age girl who worked in a pencil factory he managed. Caught between incompetent defense attorneys, manufactured evidence and public rage whipped up by the local press, Frank was speedily convicted of the crime and sentenced to be hanged.

A campaign led by Frank’s wife resulted in a commutation of his sentence and the strong possibility of a retrial – until a posse of vigilantes stepped in, dragged him out of prison and lynched him.

Masterfully staged by Harold Prince and memorably performed by a splendid cast, Parade is a haunting musical theater experience. With as much as 80 percent of the piece rendered in song, it’s the sort of strong-boned American opera that makers of musicals have been striving toward for decades.

Jason Robert Brown’s exceptionally handsome score rolls along on sweepingly lyrical terms, glowing with full-throated anthems about Dixie, rippling period fox trots, bluesy chain-gang chants and break- your-heart ballads, orchestrated into vibrant beauty by Don Sebesky. Brown’s lyrics are vivid and colloquial, laced with homespun poetry ("Her smile was like a glass of lemonade") and ringing with fighting words ("People of Atlanta fought for freedom to their graves/And now their city is a fact’ry and their children are its slaves").

A taut book by Alfred Uhry – the Atlanta-born Driving Miss Daisy author – wisely pivots all this swirling history around the changing relationship between Frank and his wife, Lucille.

At first he’s a chilly fussbudget and she’s a genteel nonentity. After the shock of his conviction, Frank is galvanized into a warmer being. As for Lucille, a submissive soul turns into a fighter capable of crashing a reception at the governor’s mansion to battle for her cause. Late in the show, the couple sing of All the Wasted Time that they misused earlier in their married life, an extraordinarily touching song of regret and new-found tenderness.

Although Uhry’s libretto never offers a solution to the murder, it presents the complex social forces in Atlanta during that era as the proudly agrarian South bowed down to Yankee corporate might. In the book, co-conceived by Prince, the annual Confederate Memorial Day Parade is used as a metaphor for the blazing rebel sentiment that ignites a firestorm of prejudice when Frank is demonized as an outsider.

In Prince’s staging, the parade is a stylized procession of stars- and-bars battle flags and crinoline-clad belles, a surreal cavalcade against which the dark musical drama plays out.
Jointly produced with the excellent taste of Lincoln Center Theater and the trademark no-expense-spared panache of Livent (U.S.) Inc., Parade is stunningly designed. Enhanced by Howell Binkley’s rich layers of lighting, Riccardo Hernandez’s settings create courtrooms, rural landscapes, factory quarters, jails and city streets, often shadowed by the foreboding presence of a windswept oak tree. Judith Dolan’s period clothes and sound reinforcement by Jonathan Deans are integral assets.

The transformation of Frank is depicted with great feeling by Brent Carver, who is able to make a fretful man sympathetically appear like a lonely soul. His character is usually seen as a repressed figure, but when the writers give Carver a rare chance to bust loose – like Come Up to My Office, when Frank is luridly branded a lowdown lecher during the trial – he tears into the material like a tiger.

With her uneasy smile and demure manners, Carolee Carmello is enormously moving as Lucille, her shimmering mezzo-soprano giving special urgency to You Don’t Know This Man, a surging plaint from a beleaguered woman.

Tops among featured players, Evan Pappas exuberantly rolls about as a raffish reporter who fuels Atlanta’s xenophobic fury. Fleet- footed John Hickok believably portrays the carefree governor who knowingly ruins his career to see that justice is done. Christy Carlson Romano gives the doomed factory girl a sunny sweetness. With a booming voice and a wicked smile, Rufus Bonds Jr. plays a potential killer with ease.

These excellent performers and a fine ensemble have been marshaled together by Prince to give their all to a striking new musical that illuminates a real American tragedy with genuine artistry.