A couple of hours before the curtain went up on opening night of Parade, a publicist from Theater Works phoned to say that that evening's performance had been rescheduled as a final dress rehearsal. In Theater land, this is never a good sign. It usually means that the show is still coming together, that the company is pleading for just a little more time to get it right.

But all the time in the world couldn't have saved Parade, an operatic recitation of the real-life story of Leo Frank, the Jewish man convicted in 1913 of murdering a teenage girl employed in the Atlanta pencil factory where he was superintendent. Alfred Uhry's book is unformed and dreary, and almost entirely overcome by Jason Robert Brown's widely lauded score, which was so badly played in this production that I hesitate to comment on its value as music.

The production does little to enhance the material here. In its defense, Theater Works has been plagued with troubles since being booted from its interim performing space by the fire marshal earlier this year. While it scrambles to make $100,000 worth of improvements to its electrical and sprinkler systems, the tiny 18-year-old company is wedged into a dance hall at Sun City's the Lakes Club. Seeing Parade in a less-than-ideal setting -- uncomfortable seating; jury-rigged lighting; inadequate amplification -- does nothing to enhance the experience.

Then again, Parade is hardly intended as uplifting and fun. Uhry's factual retelling of Frank's story is unnecessarily dour, and tends to demonize the South and to martyr Frank, who in the audience's mind is already an innocent victim.

I'd like to hear Brown's score performed by more gifted musicians. Although originally conceived as an opera, Parade was reshaped by musical theater legend Hal Prince for its New York opening in 1998. Although not an entirely sung-through work -- there are several long stretches of dialogue -- it's Brown's richly operatic music that propels the story. I strained to hear the score's substance but, as performed by the lazy bleats and squawks of Dana Graybeal's nine-piece orchestra, the music failed to carry past the first few rows.

In the lead, D. Scott Withers is head and shoulders above his cast mates. Asked to interpret a gamut of emotions and to sing and dance, he is utterly convincing as the wrongly accused Leo Frank. His solo, "Come Up to My Office," in which he enacts the smarmy accusations leveled against him, is wonderfully lecherous and perfectly sung.

There are other nice performances nearly hidden by a crowded cast. Katie Olsen is a spry ingénue with a pleasant voice. Kimberlee Hart's reading of "My Child Will Forgive Me," a mother's song of loss and retribution, is first-rate. And Jeremie McCubbin's performance of "Big News!" is as close to a showstopper as this program has; too bad his character, a journalist, is mostly relegated to the sidelines, where he lurks for hours with a notepad, presumably "covering" this story.

Jim Linde keeps the program moving along at a fair clip, but he's had to make do with too many non-singers to pull off a musical of this scale. Still, Linde is to be commended for maneuvering a cast of 30 through difficult material under less-than-adequate conditions. He's stuck with a heavy-handed script that asks us to care too much about people we're told precious little about, and the result is tepid and -- at three hours -- overlong. Ultimately, Parade is too big a show for even a large troupe that isn't squatting at a hotel to attempt -- and too boring a show for any company to bother with.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela