A single gnarled tree frames the stage as the strains of “The Old Red Hills of Home” begin to wind their way through the convoluted early 20th century story of bigotry and pride in Georgia that is Jason Robert Brown’s “Parade”.

Brooklyn-born Leo Frank (Andy Sandberg ’06) moved to Atlanta to be with his wife (Felicia Ricci ’08), who is both Jewish and Southern (yes, Virginia, it is possible). Having been a fish out of water for nearly two years, Frank is a nervous, slightly nebbish creature who cannot seem to just sit back, pop open a beer and hang around like a good ol’ boy.

Inevitably, tragedy strikes the small town, and the townsmen turn on the curt, obsessive and unsympathetic outsider, casting him as the modern-day perverted Shylock of the pencil factory. After the first 20 minutes of fairly lighthearted exposition, the cast dives into the gut-wrenching drama with gusto.

The cast and crew utilize their resources with an admirable amount of skill for an undergraduate student production. This musical tackles difficult themes and topics with wandering, disturbing Sondheimesque melodies and motifs. “Parade” transmutes the dramatic scale of grand opera into the musical theater idiom, reaching its highest notes in moments of great tragedy.

The play’s ensemble makes the most of the athleticism required by Brown’s melodies, with Mark Wittman ’07 as Judge Roan delivering an excellent basso “aria” in the second Act. Accompanied by an impressive student orchestra, lead by Justin Hatchimonji ’06, who also served as musical director, the cast does an admirable job of holding their own in the acoustically poor space. The significant a cappella representation in the cast parallels the emphasis on the quality of the music, making for a musically impressive experience that is sometimes lacking in emotion.

The most integrated performance comes from Bix Bettwy ’08 as Britt Craig, the drunken beat reporter who follows Frank’s spiral through the circus of the courts. He explodes into his first number, the splashy “Real Big News”, and sells the whole package, providing dramatic contrast to the rather tame nature of the opening scenes. Consistently following his character arc, he brings the sleazy news hound to redemption in the final scene.

As the two leads, Sandberg and Ricci seem to grow further into their characters as the narrative unfolds. As the sadly unsympathetic Frank, Sandberg does his best to keep the audience on his side until he can finally transform Frank into an almost likable man by the end of the show. Ricci lacks dramatic heft in the opening, but her solid delivery of the often difficult standard “You Don’t Know This Man” accompanies her warming to the character.

Other standouts in the largely solid ensemble cast include Victoria Neiman ’06 as Mrs. Phagan and Allison Goldberg ’06 as Iola Stover. Kyle Mitchell ’07 has possibly the best number of the entire evening with the disturbing, addictive “A Rumblin’ and a Rollin'” that simmers to the sound of the chain gang.

This grand-scale musical has been compressed to fit its epic narrative into the confines of the Off Broadway Theater. As director, Sandberg has retained the original cast size, utilizing a minimalistic set by Alice Tai ’08 to keep from overcrowding the stage during the many crowd scenes. The choreographed slow motion of the unwieldy crowd is one of Sandberg’s finest moments of direction.

The fully realized and well-coordinated costumes by Celia Muller ’06 help defray the lack of concrete place caused by the minimal set. While all the elements of “Parade” shine on their own, they fail to gel into a captivating experience. The show is Brown’s masterpiece, and is well worth seeing. Its themes and music will linger long after the final bow.