Poignant 'Parade' probes America's heart

A brilliant new musical drama about courage and prejudice makes for thrilling theater

Six years in the making, the musical drama "Parade" just opened at New York's Lincoln Center, and the American stage will never be the same.

Brilliant yet terrifying, filled with complex themes elucidated with the clarity of a white-hot spotlight aimed at center stage, this pageant about the forging of a troubling aspect of the American character is one of the most thrilling evenings of a theater-lover's lifetime.

"Parade" is dramatized by Alfred Uhry, who won a Pulitzer Prize for "Driving Miss Daisy," with music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown, a young composer making his Broadway debut. It is co-conceived and directed by Harold Prince, whose 45-year career has propelled him to this pinnacle, a story based on an actual event that is not easy to imagine in song and dance.

The facts are these: In 1913, Leo Frank, a Northerner and a college-educated Jew who had moved to Atlanta and taken a job as superintendent of a pencil factory, was accused of murdering a 13-year-old girl who worked for him. Convicted and sentenced to hang for the crime, Frank was spared by Gov. John M. Slaton after two years of appeals because of suspect evidence given by the witnesses at the trial.

But within weeks, Frank was dragged from prison by a mob and lynched, a victim of lingering anger against the North, whose victory in the Civil War forced the loss of so many farms, propelling families into the cities and children into the factories to help support them. Anti-Semitism also played a role.

The importance of the time and place is established from the show's opening moments. A young Confederate soldier sings the heart-rending "The Old Red Hills of Home." It rings with love for a region that had not yet recovered from devastating losses.

A battle-scarred veteran takes the place of the young man as the scene quickly changes to Confederate Memorial Day in 1913. The passing of the parade, with its floats and banners, stands as a metaphor for the pride and the fury that had scarcely dimmed since the defeat of the South.

In a virtuoso, ever-transforming performance by Brent Carver, a Tony Award-winner for his lead role in "Kiss of the Spider Woman," Frank is the quintessential outsider right from his first song, "How Can I Call This Home?" While everyone else watches the parade, Frank, in a dark business suit and tie, is on his way to his office, despite the holiday. He does not even feel comfortable in Atlanta's German-Jewish community, into which he has married, because he has not adopted their protective attitude of fitting in by deeds and manner.

The plot escalates quickly from the discovery of the girl's body in the basement of the factory to the connivance of politicians who need a quick resolution, to the fanning of the incendiary situation by journalists. Act I ends in the trial and conviction of Frank.

Act II focuses on the marriage of Frank and Lucille, who takes up his cause, persuading the governor to review the case. Frank grows from a tight-lipped, controlling character to a man of fervent belief in the eventual fairness of the law. The poignancy of the couple, who fall in love in the midst of adversity, is the core of the work. It makes the tragic outcome - the miscarriage of justice - even more disturbing.

Along with Carver, standouts include Carolee Carmello as Lucille, the woman who must leave the life of a stay-at-home wife and become a heroine; Rufus Bonds Jr., as a fugitive from a chain gang and the chief witness against Frank; Evan Pappas as an effervescent journalist; and John Hickock as Governor Slaton.

The theme of dignity and fair-mindedness in the face of nearly unspeakable prejudice is the quality that lifts "Parade" into new realms of stagecraft. Uhry's dialogue, Brown's expressive lyrics and memorable melodies, and Prince's surehanded direction create a parable of Americana, a landmark commentary on the many strands of courage and darkness that weave through American history.

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