Christopher Rawson

They say everyone loves a parade.

Not me — not when massed Confederate battle flags march across the sky, no matter that much of the blood memorially shed was in the defense of home and family. My New England prejudice runs too deep.

And what about “Parade,” the somber new musical drama that begins in 1913 with just such a Confederate Memorial Day parade? Not everyone will love it, either. But you don’t need to love something to be stirred by it, to find it grabbing you surreptitiously, compelling interest that shades gradually into admiration.

That 1913 Atlanta parade comes on the day young Mary Phagan is murdered. The annual celebration returns at mid-play and finale, marking the speedy passage of the two years until the lynching of an apparently guiltless Leo Frank.

So this play is no colorful parade like last week’s “Anything Goes.” If that’s your one idea of a musical, then “Parade” is more like a funeral procession — a musical tragedy. It may seem odd that the 2000 CLO season comes to a close on this note, but there’s something bracing about it, too — after all, man does not live by Cole Porter alone.

The first sight on the Benedum stage is plenty somber itself: The giant tree that we cannot help but know (and if you don’t, I’m telling you) will be the stolid agent of Leo Frank’s end. That tree is with us all play long, brooding, implacable even when briefly disguised as the site of a hopeful picnic, at the exact point Leo’s sour martyrdom seems destined to be averted.

The tree also starts as part of a touching Civil War tableau, just so we’ll remember what it is all still about, less than 50 years after the last battle — and even perhaps today, almost 90 years further on. Then we meet the Franks: Jewish, Brooklyn-born Leo, prickly, inhibited, bewildered by the South even after four years; and Lucille, his gracious, humorous Southern Jewish wife. It’s not a bad marriage, it just hasn’t blossomed yet.

Like a parade on speed, “Parade” moves lickety split into its story. Before we know it, the girl is dead with her murder left vague, as it must be. There’s a no-‘count newspaper opportunist happy to introduce us to the mess of working class exploitation, racial separation, Jew-baiting, politics and rabble-rousing in which the Frank case became its year’s trial of the century.

This makes a potent brew, as when religious demagogue Tom Watson croons a bigoted prayer for vengeance just as prosecutor Hugh Dorsey finds a way to create evidence out of invitation, determination and intimidation.

You’re dying for Leo to speak up and defend himself, but he doesn’t know how. He’s a non-hero hero, proud, disdainful and hard to love. The historical moment has its inevitable victim. A dance number at the end of Act 1 celebrates Leo’s conviction, and you’d feel guilty yourself to applaud.

But in his brief trial defense, Leo finally begins to reveal himself. It’s too late for justice, but it sets us up for the surprise of Act 2: Our discovery of Leo and Lucille and theirs of each other. The tragedy briefly blossoms into a love story, just as a brave Georgia governor commutes the death sentence, citing another governor, 2000 years before, who let another Jew die unjustly.

Jason Robert Brown’s score grows on you as slowly as the show. On first hearing, its range impresses, extending to touches of gospel, ragtime and work chant. “The Old Red Hills of Home” sounds like a found regional anthem; other songs echo period material. Gradually you hear the pathos, and no one could resist “All the Wasted Time,” the Franks’ heart-touching final duet.

At Tuesday’s curtain call, a standing ovation greeted David Pittu and Andrea Burns (Leo and Lucille), and continued as they gestured to the pit where composer Brown was conducting. All deserve their plaudits. Pittu carefully moves from passive to hopeful, letting us find his heroism at our own speed. In a richer, more likable role, Burns warms us all. And Brown’s music moves us inexorably toward destiny.

The tree itself is odd — not the voluminously maternal tree of the New York production, but an angular, tormented monster that looks more like a Jabberwock or a Gerrymander.

Maybe that’s a little like “Parade.” Love it or not, it grows on you.