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A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

If A Tree Grows in Brooklyn isn't the weakest Rodgers and Hammerstein musical not written by Rodgers and Hammerstein, it's close. This forceful charmer of a show, being given a concert production this weekend as part of the City Center Encores! series, tries so hard to move you and so desperately wants you to like it that you end up with more sympathy for it than for any of the characters onstage.

For all the naysayers who today mock Rodgers and Hammerstein, let A Tree Grows in Brooklyn prove that writing a great musical is never easy. Boasting talents like Arthur Schwartz (music), Dorothy Fields (lyrics), and George Abbott and Betty Smith (book, based on Smith's popular 1943 novel about the bubbling melting pot of turn-of-the-20th-century Brooklyn), how could the 1951 A Tree Grows in Brooklyn not have become another Carousel (this show's closest, clearest model)?

Alas, the exact alchemy of a Broadway hit still has yet to be discovered. (How would this Broadway season alone be different if it had?) If there's a single rule, it's probably the one that Rodgers and Hammerstein helped establish with their landmark Oklahoma!: Be true to your material and your intentions. While there's much that's good in this show's score and book (even as chopped down for this concert presentation by David Ives), the show has the thrown-together quality of a hastily scheduled potluck dinner.

The reason for this imbalance has often been attributed to the original production's star, Shirley Booth. Her role as the comically loving and griping Cissy (who calls all her live-in "husbands" Harry in eternal deference to The One That Got Away) was built up to accommodate Booth's gifts and the audience's expectations. But here that's less of a problem: Emily Skinner, an ebullient and unquestionably talented singing comic actress, simply lacks the sheer star power necessary to pull focus away from where it belongs.

That would be on Cissy's sister, Katie (Sally Murphy), and her new husband Johnny Nolan (Jason Danieley), who's tends to drink away his meager paychecks rather than use them to support his family. A singer and musician by trade, Johnny soon learns that fulfilling the American Dream is hard work, and not something at which everyone will succeed. Much of the show charts some 13 years of Johnny's life and attempts to truly make something of himself and provide for his family.

Many of the ideas are but half-realized, in both the score and the book: "Mine 'til Monday," about temporarily rescuing cherished possessions from the pawn shop, is jaunty but ineffective at establishing atmosphere and vital concepts early on; Johnny's "I'm Like a New Broom," detailing his hopes at cleaning up his life, is neither convincingly earnest nor believably ironic; and a vital thematic number - "That's How It Goes," equating the transient qualities of life and laundry - is a curious throwaway that never finds its proper voice in either composition or staging (a rare lapse in Sergio Trujillo's otherwise accomplished choreography, which includes an exciting second-act nightmare ballet).

This is not to say that the writing isn't enjoyable; most jokes land flawlessly, as does the score, which thrills as played by Rob Fisher's peerless Encores! orchestra. The score's multi-ethnic flavor, incorporating strains of makeshift ragtime, Irish tunes, and even pseudo-barbershop close harmony, is giddily evocative of the period, and when the songs are good - the soaringly romantic "I'll Buy You a Star" for Johnny at first act's close, or nearly all of Cissy's specialties, like the comically quipping "Love is the Reason" or the deludedly wistful "He Had Refinement" - they're great.

So why do the show's elements never coalesce? It's not the fault of the cast, as Murphy and Danieley provide luminous, layered turns, Katherine Faye Barry firmly impresses as Katie and Johnny's daughter, and musical comedy stalwarts like Nancy Anderson and John Ellison Conlee provide excellent support in smaller roles. And one must admire director Gary Griffin for his well-judged taming and tempering, even if the results here are less potent than the wacky ribaldry that so made his 2004 Encores! mounting of Pardon My English snap, crackle, and pop.

One can't even blame the tinkering that's been done to the show. Ives's concert adaptation likely simplifies what's already a muddled story, but it plays well. And if Fisher's scouring the original cast recording for new material and fashioning a wholly new ending not envisioned by the creators smacks of unnecessary revisionism, the results - like the show as a whole - aren't displeasing or unaffecting.

No, it's because of Abbott, Smith, Schwartz, and Dietz, who together wrote half a great show and half a mediocre one. What's present in this production is strong enough to encourage us to thank Encores! for introducing us to both halves, even if the great show feels far too like one (or ten) we already know by heart and the mediocre one like a hundred others we'd rather forget.


City Center Encores!
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
Running Time: 2 hours, 15 minutes with one 15-minute intermission
City Center, West 55th Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues
Schedule and Tickets: 212.581.1212

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