Craft and energy mark the world premiere of "Sycamore Trees" at Signature Theatre. It is a bio-musical by one of the more avant-garde composer/lyricists now working in musical theater: Ricky Ian Gordon. The musical, which slated its official opening for Tuesday of this week with only two weeks remaining in the run, features performances by some of Broadway’s big names.
The piece is by Gordon whose work has been widely praised and recorded, although this is the first full-scale production of a musical by him to be mounted in the Washington area. Often, his work is viewed as "art songs" rather than "show music" and the score for the show at Signature exhibits a wide range of musical styles from jazzy pop songs to snappy show tunes to something approaching but not quite crossing the line into operatic arias.
The cast certainly has the talent to handle any style Gordon throws at them. Every one of the seven members of the cast has had featured or starring roles on Broadway, including Mark Kudisch who returns to Signature after earning a Helen Hayes Award for his performance in "The Witches of Eastwick" here and a nomination for the earlier "The Highest Yellow."
The show is structured as the story of the life of one family as seen through the eyes of the one son among the family’s four children. The family is a thinly fictionalized version of his own, and the narrating son is clearly Gordon’s own view of himself. It rushes through the decades from his parent’s first meeting to the death of his father. Along the way there are also the deaths of one of his sisters and of his lover. Love, loss and the struggle for acceptance is at the heart of the piece.
Tony Yazbeck, fresh from his Broadway run in this season’s version of "Irving Berlin’s White Christmas," is charming in a slightly off-kilter way as the gay son who narrates the show. He brings both energy and humor to his performance along with a touch of schmaltz. Matthew Rich, who starred in last year’s revival of "Pal Joey" on Broadway, plays both the son’s gay lover and all the subordinate male roles as the play barrels through six decades.
The father who can’t bring himself to accept his son’s homosexuality, or the various perceived ways in which his daughters fail to fulfill his dreams, is played by Kudisch with a strong stage presence and a good deal of personal charisma in both the early and later sections of the play even as, in the middle, the script requires a period of bigotry and intolerance that runs counter to that early impression.
As his wife, a singer and comedian turned mother and housewife, is Diane Sutherland, a performer of charm and humor. It is harder to assess the performances of the actresses playing the three sisters. Clearly, Judy Kuhn is the most impressive, and strangely, the only one of the three without her own solo. The other two, however, have to cope with somewhat overwritten roles. Jessica Molaskey is the oldest sister who succumbs to addiction and her performance seems to succumb to the damage of the drugs as well. Farah Alvin is the youngest sister and her performance is hindered by the fact that she has to spout some tired clichés to establish her character as a radical liberal rejecting her father’s values.
Gordon’s output has been varied and voluminous. He’s written works intended for traditional musical theaters, the concert hall and the opera house. His opera "The Grapes of Wrath" premiered at the Minnesota Opera but a concert version was mounted at Carnegie Hall earlier this year with Broadway stars singing and Jane Fonda narrating. He’s written song cycles including "Orpheus and Euridice," which premiered at New York’s Lincoln Center. He’s had off-Broadway and regional productions of musicals such as "My Life with Albertine" and "Dream True," which he wrote with Tina Landau who directed this latest production.
In 2006 Gordon was one of Signature Theatre’s first recipients of a "Composers Grant" under the American Musical Voices Project funded by the Shen Family Foundation. Like the other recipients, he was given a $25,000 grant plus four years of health insurance coverage so he could devote himself to writing a new piece. This is the second of the American Musical Voices Project musicals to premiere at Signature. The first was last year’s "Giant" by Michael John LaChiusa.
In "Sycamore Trees" Gordon exhibits his talent at both story telling and song writing. However, he has chosen to tell a story that is crowded with clichés and focuses on all the negative aspects of American life over the second half of the 20th century without so much of a mention of any of the positives. That, of course, is the privilege of a playwright, but it makes for an evening that becomes a droning dirge of criticism that the strength of the music and the energy of the cast can’t quite overcome.
Brad Hathaway reviews theater in Virginia, Washington and Maryland and writes about theater for a number of national magazines. He can be reached at Brad@PotomacStages.com.