A Tree Grows in Brooklyn Grows in Midtown 

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A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
Adapted from Betty Smith's novel by Elinor Renfield and Susan DiLallo
Music and lyrics by Arthur Schwartz and Dorothy Fields
Directed by Dan Wackerman

In its stage musical version, Betty Smith's heavily autobiographic novel A Tree Grows in Brooklyn—currently in a sharpened revival by the Peccadillo Theater Company at the Theatre at St. Clement's (through April 10)—strips down the coming-of-age narrative about young Francie Nolan (Keaton Whittaker) growing up in Williamsburg to focus on her parents' practically contemporary relationship. She, Katie (Elizabeth Loyacano, subdued but very strong), is a humble beauty, a young woman made brittle by hard work and poverty. He, Johnny Nolan (tragically charismatic Jim Stanek), is a struggling musician with increasingly delusional dreams of success, and worsening drinking and womanizing habits. A standard complaint about the original 1951 Broadway production was that the script didn't measure up to the memorable musical numbers, and that the relatively small character of Katie's raunchy older sister Cissy was given disproportionate stage time for the outsized performer cast in the role, Shirley Booth. Here Cissy (delightfully saucy Klea Blackhurst) and her live-in boyfriend (Timothy Shew) serve mostly as an outrageous foil for the increasingly downtrodden central couple.

This production's four excellent musicians play atop the central buildin—appropriately, the nightclub and brothel Nellies's—in designer Joseph Spirito's town square set, with buildings on three sides whose facades peel back to reveal period interiors. Costume designer Amy C. Bradshaw takes up the early-20th-century motif, juxtaposing stuffy daytime clothes with bawdy evening-wear—the same two trios of actors and actresses play respectable Brooklynites by day, and drinkers and brothel-frequenters after dark. If the first act at times seems belabored, preoccupied with a courtship that's never in doubt, it does feature some wonderful musical moments, especially in the raucous wedding scene. A hint of the sadness to come drops tantalizingly as the lights rise for intermission.

The musical's narrative cribs from the first three sections of the five-part novel, reducing the role of Francie (Keaton Whittaker) to little more than a narrator. A third couple formed by the ex Johnny dumped to take up with Katie, Hildy (excellent Lianne Marie Dobbs), and her wealthy club-owner husband Aloysius (Jason Simon), provide another counterpoint to the poverty-stricken lead pair. The triangulation of couples throws the Nolans' pains into sharper relief. Many of the once-charming, dreamy numbers—especially Johnny's heartfelt "Don't Be Afraid" and Katie's vulnerable "Make the Man Love Me"—turn delusional and full of sadness when reprised in the second act, the stakes suddenly much higher since a whole household hangs in the balance.

The ensemble manages the at-times demanding musical marathons very well, dashing, tapping, leaping around the self-contained streetscape tirelessly through countless costume changes. Despite the quasi-small town atmosphere evoked of early 20th-century Williamsburg and the Dickensian cast of local figures, this revamped A Tree Grows in Brooklyn combines excellent music with a more focused script that gets at very modern ideas about romance and marriage, and how beautiful unions can succumb to very practical problems. There's no actual tree in this production, but its metaphor of resilience and resourcefulness survives virtually unscathed.

(photo: Carol Rosegg)

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