I have never considered Jason Robert Brown’s Parade to be among the greatest musicals to grace the American stage, but Elon University Department of Performing Art‘s stark, heart-breaking production has convinced me otherwise.

The story is an important one to tell: the true story of Leo Frank. Frank is a Jewish bookkeeper living in 1913 Marietta, Georgia who is falsely accused of the murder of a young girl. The accusations activate the deeply rooted anti-Semitism in the Marietta townsfolk, which is used to get mayoral candidates elected, journalists to validate their jobs, and citizens to reminisce about the days when the South and America were not stained with immigrants.

Composer Jason Robert Brown and book writer Alfred Uhry crafted a musical that hits deep emotional chords (sometimes literally in Brown’s melodic score) with the audience, yet lacks the focus on Leo and Lucille for its final devastating moments to resonate once the house lights come up. It is, all at once, a statement on injustice in America, on racism in America, and on the American hero; the exhaustive list goes on and on, with Uhry and Brown including all kinds of storytelling devices and musical styles to hide the story’s thin and brisk plotline.

Enter director Catherine McNeela and the Elon cast and crew. Bringing to light the age-old saying “Love is boundless,” the production doesn’t only accent the relationship of Leo and Lucille, but also the relationship of each townsperson with another. Whereas the ensemble could easily act as a unit character, McNeela and her cast have taken time to create full, fleshed-out characters who are coaxed into believing a variety of lies from different sources. The “mob” is not all one-sided; these are people who have decided to go one way or another.

While each character in the 20+ cast has a moment to step forward and shine, if the lead actors playing Leo and Lucille cannot meet the singing and acting demands, it becomes tough to sit through the evening. Fortunately, Julian Burzynski and Emily Fallon exceeded all expectations of the characters; dare I say it was a star turn for each.

Alec Michael Ryan’s scheming politician Hugh Dorsey held all of the hypocritical attributes politicians today hold. He and Trevor McChristian, as a terrifyingly zealous preacher, gave dimension to characters that use hate to get ahead in life.

JJ Niemann shone as young Frankie in his laments, and Fergie Phillipe as Jim Conley and Michael Schimmele as Britt Craig gave rousing performances in their respective songs.

JRB’s score won a Tony Award in 1999, though his songs, gifted in melody, are never consistent, which proves to be a challenge to any music director who must helm the orchestra and singers of this roller coaster of a musical. Elon alumnus Ethan Andersen brilliantly navigated the difficult score, with the orchestra sounding the best it has in recent memory under his baton.

The production was among the finest university productions I’ve seen in the area in recent years. Jack Smith’s period costumes are gorgeous time capsules, as is Dale Becherer’s multi-part set which seamlessly transitions from one location to the next. Linda Sabo’s choreography is shockingly modern, which is refreshing in the moments it occurs.

In musical theatre, the impulse for a show to become pure escapism and presentational is tempting, but in recent programming choices, specifically last year’s The Light in the Piazza and this year’s Parade, Elon is showing that musicals should challenge its audiences and actors. These musicals show that not everything is always coming up roses; the human spirit and the importance of connecting with one another are also important. Elon’s Department of Performing Arts has the ability to show the heart in every production it does, so much so that its seasons can become one continuous lesson in the wonders of the human heart. If it means going back to Elon every season to learn this, I would not mind learning for the rest of my life.

Parade continues through Saturday, November 5. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.