A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
nytheatre.com review by Jason S. Grossman
March 17, 2011
To repair what could have been an American theater classic. Such is the goal of the Peccadillo Theater Company with A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, the musical based on the iconic semi-autobiographical novel by Betty Smith, and its beloved film adaptation.
This is the first fully staged, full-length revival of the musical in 60 years. Playing to mixed to favorable reviews when it opened on Broadway in 1951, the book of the play was largely criticized for bolstering the role of the supporting character Cissy who was played by legendary actress Shirley Booth. Cissy got the big laughs at the expense of the main plot of a star-crossed couple and their child struggling to make ends meet on the poor side of town.
For this production, Susan DiLallo and Dan Wackerman have revised the original book by George Abbott and Betty Smith (after initial revisions by Elinor Renfield) in an attempt to be truer to the original novel and screenplay. The objective is to refocus on the protagonist Francie's parents' relationship. The results here are mainly successful in improving an essentially forgotten old-fashioned musical.
This is the story of the Nolan family. We meet the young lovers in 1902 in impoverished Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Lady killer Johnny Nolan is a talented singer whose dreams of fame and riches never die. Katie is instantly smitten by the charming Johnny, and their courting begins despite warnings from her sister Cissy about Johnny's alcoholic tendencies. The relationship blossoms, they get married and have a baby as Johnny continues to battle the bottle and hold onto jobs singing at local clubs.
The production gets off on the right foot with a wonderfully nostalgic set (design by Joseph Spirito) lovingly depicting turn-of-the-century Williamsburg. The smartly staged store and tenement building fronts sharply underscore the production, and the orchestra is cleverly positioned on a Brooklyn rooftop.
Richard Stafford choreographs the traditional musical tap numbers well that dominate Act I, but a highlight of the evening is his nightmarish ballet in Act II.
Twelve-year-old protagonist Francie introduces us to the story at curtain, and we see her occasionally throughout Act I as the narrator. The presence of Francie in Act I is apparently a revision from the original book of the musical and a good idea. But the musical gets off the blocks slowly with too much time dedicated to the courtship of Johnny and Katie. There seem to be too many ballads dedicated to the musings of early love. Only in Act II does the musical find its dramatic footing as the reality of unrealized dreams hits home. Katie loses faith, the couple bickers, and Francie might have to taken out of school to earn money for the family.
The principal characters are a likeable lot. Elizabeth Loyacano is strong as the traditional Broadway heroine Katie, and she has a captivating stage presence. It would have been nice to see her character more in the middle sections of the musical. Keaton Whittaker is lovely and grounded as the central character Francie. It is clear she has a long, bright career on stage ahead of her.
Jim Stanek hits all the beats successfully as the irresponsible, irrepressible father Johnny Nolan, a singer of great ability with a greater thirst for the bottle. He is marvelous as the unflappable dreamer, and his voice is one of the treats of this production (and we are treated to it often). Other accomplished performances in the cast are turned in by Jason Simon and Lianne Marie Dobbs. Klea Blackhurst is big and brassy as Cissy, a character present mainly for comedic relief. Blackhurst is consistently entertaining.
This is an ideal project for The Peccadillo Theater Company, whose mission is to rediscover works of classic American theater that are not regularly revived. Not only are they taking on a relevant work in this vein, they are, in essence, restoring it. We can only hope that writer Betty Smith, unhappy with many aspects of the original Broadway musical adaptation of her famous work, would be pleased with this commendable effort.
Part of the proceeds of the production go to the Mayor's Storm Fund which is designated to plant trees in Brooklyn, many of which were destroyed in recent storms.