Now in its world-premiere run at Arlington’s Signature Theatre, Ricky Ian Gordon’s new musical Sycamore Trees is funny, sad, ephemeral, serious, witty, and pensive. It’s the composer’s poetic and moving take on his own boisterous family saga. And happily, it’s flawlessly executed by a first-rate, veteran cast and a top-notch stage band—an incomparable advantage for any new production.
Sycamore Trees follows the adventures and misadventures of the Sylvans (get it?) a Jewish-American family that migrates from a squalid Bronx flat to the green and leafy suburbs in the years after the Second World War. Dad Sidney (Marc Kudisch), a tradesman, returns from his service in the European Theater and reunites with his spunky young wife, Edie (Diane Sutherland), a raucous former Borscht Belt singer. Together, they contribute four children to America’s massive post-war Baby Boom, vividly encountering the joys and sorrows of pursuing that always-elusive American Dream—something they all have a hard time defining.
Sycamore Trees is tight and economical, surprisingly ready for prime time for a brand new work. Gordon’s seemingly light, accessible music is deviously complex beneath the surface, loaded with layers of mystery and allusions to other composers and eras. Both music and lyrics are at times reminiscent of Stephen Sondheim but, thankfully, lack Sondheim’s tendency to over-intellectualize.
Gordon’s score doesn’t supply a steady, predictable diet of memorable tunes. A bit like verismo opera, Sycamore Trees is sung drama, its solo and ensemble passages queued with enough spoken narrative to keep things moving, seamlessly linking each musical idea and plot twist with the next.
Actually, there isn’t really a plot in this show. Rather, we get the classic “slice of life,” salient snippets of a family saga that generally unfolds in linear fashion, decade by decade. In case we forget which decade we’re in, large, illuminated numbers perched on the catwalk above the black box stage are there to remind us. Helping us further, the music morphs to approximate the popular style of each decade. It’s subtle and unobtrusive, but it’s there nonetheless if you listen.
As for the family story itself, we’ve all been there, each in his or her own special way. In Sycamore Trees we meet a family populated by almost comically predictable character types, almost like an American take on commedia dell’arte.
First there’s Myrna, the oldest (portrayed by Jessica Molaskey), who’s headstrong, brilliant, driven, and destined to be a writer. Next is middle sister Theresa (a bespectacled Judy Kuhn), headstrong and rebellious, a full-blown hippie-in-the-making. She’s followed by Ginnie, the youngest sister (Farah Alvin), who’s kind and peace loving but lacking almost entirely in focus.
Finally, there’s Andrew (Tony Yazbeck), the youngest sib and Sidney’s only son who generally serves as the show’s narrator and central intelligence. That said, he’s frequently interrupted by his sisters who insist on imposing their own narratives, which, of course, is what families do. The constant interweaving of story lines with narrative asides could have been confusing in lesser hands. But the actors never break the mood of the moment and things generally work quite well.
While much of the show comes across pleasantly, there’s political conflict in the background as one might expect from a Baby Boomer family chronicle. It sneaks up on you—as it did on many American families. Boomers in the audience will immediately recognize that ominous slide as the compliant, conformist 1950s slouch nervously toward the almost inexplicably violent and unpredictable 1960s.
This political sea change strikes Sidney’s family—the girls in particular—with a passionate, left-tinged virulence. New York City’s youthful radicalism engulfs the no-longer safe Levittown suburbs of Long Island and beyond, leaving in its wake disillusionment, drugs, and disaster, along with parents who wonder how it all could have happened.
Andrew has different issues. Actually, one major one. He’s gay. Which, of course, is guaranteed to drive his patriotic, masculine father up the wall.
Oddly, Andrew’s love for significant other David (Matthew Risch), while in many ways the emotional high point of the show, also proves to be its weakest link. Succumbing to complications from AIDS, David passes away gently, but heroically like a saint. It’s a genuinely moving moment. But it’s also an idealized moment that lacks the kind of grounding in reality that makes the other scenes ring so true.
Perhaps the most significant innovation in Sycamore Trees is the treatment of Sidney himself. Not surprisingly, Sidney turns out, on one level, to be the usual ogre dad, totally dismissive of his children’s individuality and totally unsympathetic to their leftist pursuits. He’s kind of a Jewish Archie Bunker.
But Gordon is not that facile. We get a hint early on that Sidney has seen many things in the war that he’ll never divulge to his family, keeping them bottled up inside of him forever, just like countless, taciturn fathers of that era. What he knows seethes and burns inside him. What he knows makes rebelling against traditional family values and protesting against the United States, the savior of the free world, anathema. But somehow, for some reason, he can never let this out.
Boomers will immediately recognize this kind of tragic, brooding, lifelong silence, an affliction of countless World War II vets who violently opposed their children’s radicalism but could never bring themselves to tell them exactly why which is why their opposition was usually rejected out of hand. It’s a central tragedy of the Boomer generation that’s still playing out today. That Gordon had the guts to open this particular door is what makes this show a special one.
As to the performance itself, the entire cast pitched themselves headlong into their roles during Sunday evening’s performance, both musically and dramatically.
Marc Kudisch’s powerful yet understated portrayal of Sidney, the Sylvan family’s noble yet flawed paterfamilias, was highly effective. He doesn’t get a ton of stage time. But his brooding, haunted character, filled with love but afraid to display it, hovers over the proceedings, a haunting, mystifying, often threatening presence in his children’s lives.
As Andrew, Sidney’s polar opposite, Tony Yazbeck was a fountain of energy, trying to fit in with family and society even as he realizes life will never be “normal” for him. His manic energy and relentless good humor serve to unite the sometimes-disparate threads of this brawling family saga.
Also turning in a fine performance was Jessica Molaskey as the precocious and eventually famous Myrna. Her larger than life writer/feminist character finally encounters an obstacle she can’t overcome with tragic consequences. Like Myrna’s shadow, Theresa, the even more quarrelsome middle sister ably portrayed by Judy Kuhn, emulates Myrna in many ways. But she’s able to resolve her own demons successfully.
Diane Sutherland’s Edie and Matthew Risch’s David round out this fine cast. Sutherland’s Edie seems, at times, to take a back seat to the proceedings, letting her larger-than-life kids and her brooding husband take center stage. A mother, so the cliché insists, is the heart of the family, and Edie is. But she’s also a master of ceremony in many ways, a Catskills singer, entertainer, and comic to the end who keeps things moving with a song and a joke even when everything seems ready to break down forever. It’s an impressive, energetic performance.
The versatile Risch ably impersonates a number of side characters before stepping front and center to join the Sylvan family in a way that Sidney doesn’t exactly approve. Whether playing David or someone else, Risch’s character changes are effortless, adding to the impressive seamlessness of this production.
Tina Landau’s direction gives form and meaning to this wide-ranging show. The production is so smooth, so seemingly effortless that you know a master hand must be behind it all. And yet, Landau’s directing is gracious, not obtrusive. Once you enter into the show, you forget that someone directed it, something that’s a lot more impressive than it might seem.
Landau did the choreography for this show, too. Once again, her deft touch gives this show an overall sense of graciousness. When the song and dance numbers do occur, they always seem spontaneous, something fun to do on the spur of the moment. They happen and then they don’t, popping up organically as the mood might occasion.
The accompanying musical ensemble, led by Fred Lassen, was terrific. Oddly, like the orchestra in Arena Stage’s recent revival of Light in the Piazza, these musicians also performed on the scaffolding high above the stage. Happily this time, their lofty perch was not distracting as it was in the Arena effort, probably due to the fact that this time, they had more than adequate performance space so things didn’t seem so precarious.
Additionally, Signature’s sound design (the singers and musicians were miked) was natural, never clipped or harsh.
James Schuette’s minimalist sets for Sycamore Trees are sparse, suggestive, but really clever. They have an improv quality to them, matching the “spontaneous” dance numbers on the program. Reminiscent of The Fantasticks of old, Schuette provides the bare minimum to get the job done, rightly confident that the fine cast will take it home.
While a trifle saccharine in spots, Ricky Ian Gordon’s Sycamore Trees is one of the best new musicals we’ve seen in some time. Its music and lyrics sparkle. Yet it’s a lot deeper than it seems.
Its prickly yet ultimately endearing family is a collective Everyman, meticulously recalling an America of the not-too-distant past, a country feeling its way through a collective dark night of the soul that played out not only in its streets but in its family dining rooms as well.
But in the end, this family, at least, still loves one another as the curtain falls.
Music and lyrics by Ricky Ian Gordon
Book by Ricky Ian Gordon and Nina Mankin
Directed by Tina Landau
Music direction by Fred Lassen
Choreography by Tina Landau
Produce by Signature Theatre
Reviewed by Terry Ponick
Sycamore Trees is scheduled to run thru June 13, 2010.
For Details, Directions and Tickets, click here.
SYCAMORE TREES REVIEWS
- Sophie Gilbert . Washingtonian
Charles Shubow . BroadwayWorld
David Hoffman . Fairfax Times
- Marsha Dubrow . Baltimore Examiner
- Lisa Traiger . Washington Jewish Week
- Susan Berlin . TalkinBroadway
- Brad Hathaway . Arlington Connection
- Barbara MacKay . DCExaminer
Rick Sincere . Rick Sincere News and Thoughts
- Bob Mondello . City Paper
Erin Trompeter . Express Night Out
Tom Avila . MetroWeekly
- Peter Marks . Washington Post
Paul Harris . Variety
Michael Toscano . Theatermania