The Cleveland Plain-Dealer
Tony Brown

The first thing the audience saw last night at the Palace Theatre, even before the show began, was a huge, crooked tree.

The branches spread across the stage like a conspiracy. The starkness shimmered. Its massiveness loomed over the stage like an omen. And we knew that it would be on this tree that the mob would lynch Leo Frank.

The drummer banged his snare slowly, a young Confederate soldier plaintively sang the opening lines of "The Old Red Hills of Home," and the extraordinary theater event "Parade" began its two-week Cleveland stopover at Playhouse Square.

Frank, a Jew from Brooklyn who went to Atlanta for a job, was accused of the still unsolved 1913 murder of 14-year-old Mary Phagan. A mob of leading citizens from the nearby town of Marietta lynched him two years later.

It’s a fascinating story, revealing the wounds that still festered on the Southern mind half a century after the Civil War and dramatizing the resentment growing in Atlanta over the burgeoning Industrial Revolution (Mary made 12 cents an hour putting erasers on pencils at the factory supervised by Frank).

The story attracted the attention and talents of writer Alfred Uhry, director Harold Prince and composer Jason Robert Brown. Through a series of misfortunes, the show closed after only two months on Broadway. It lives yet again in a limited, 20-week tour thanks to the passion the authors have for it. Brown even tours with the show, conducting his score.

"Parade" is sometimes guilty of oversimplifying and stereotyping its portrayals of Southerners (a surprise, because Uhry is from Atlanta) and other groups.

But the score, one of the most muscular pieces of musical theater of the past decade, makes up for all minor shortcomings.

The 28 numbers are completely American. In the way that Charles Ives transformed hymns and folk music into symphonies, Brown borrows from church music, traditional cakewalks, chain-gang chants, battle songs, ragtime and more to create a wholly original aural fabric. Rousing and intimate, touching and combative, celebratory and funereal, this haunting piece will withstand many coming decades.

The tour is of unprecedented quality. The original design and creative team returned to recreate the Broadway show. Prince, with the help of choreographer Patricia Birch, costume designer Judith Dolan and set designer Ricardo Hernandez, creates visually arresting tableau after visually arresting tableau.

And the performers, including several members of the Broadway cast and several stellar additions, pour their hearts into the project. David Pittu’s nebbishy Frank is balanced by Andrea Burns’ porcelain Lucille; their soaring reading of "All the Wasted Time" is the emotional pinnacle of a highly charged show. Peter Samuel plays stiff-necked prosecutor Hugh Dorsey with the bullheadedness of a man who knows he’s wrong. Keith Byron Kirk, playing false eyewitness Jim Conley, has a voice as big as all outdoors in the chain-gang blues "Feel the Rain Fall."

This is not a happy-ending musical, and the tree tells us from the beginning what that ending will be. But "Parade" is deceptively uplifting as it deftly confronts us with an ugly anti-Semitic event that didn’t happen in Nazi Germany but right here in our own country.

The truth will set you free. Especially when it sounds this good.