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A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
­­­Elizabeth Loyacano and Jim Stanek.
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

Everyone knows the saying, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” What’s often neglected is its equally important corollary: “If it is broke, fix it carefully.” Dan Wackerman, artistic director of the Peccadillo Theater Company, has fallen into just this trap with a property that is unquestionably some kind of broken: the 1951 musical A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Though based on Betty Smith’s novel of the same name, one of the 20th century’s most acclaimed, the show itself opened injured and closed limping. But in rethinking it, especially for the new revival that just opened at the Theatre at St. Clement’s, all director Wackerman and his collaborators have managed to do is break it in new and usually stultifying ways.

On some level, the problem may be unavoidable. Though the show’s story, much like the novel’s, is about married couple Johnny and Katie Nolan’s travails at the dawn of the 1900s, Shirley Booth, at that point hot off her success in Come Back, Little Sheba, was cast in the supporting role of Katie’s sister, Cissy. And conventional wisdom is that, in tailoring their show to Booth, librettists Smith and Abbott, lyricist Dorothy Fields, and composer Arthur Schwartz unbalanced things past the tipping point. With too many scenes, songs, and jokes being delivered by an audience favorite — but whose character was, at best, tangential to the show — its point and poignancy were lost.

The show’s chief saving grace was its score, a collection of intoxicating tunes capturing the uncertainty of immigrant life in early-modern New York, the fragile nature of Katie and Johnny’s relationship, and the bawdy fun that all these people could have. Alternately bouncing, souring, and bumping and grinding, with sunny optimism cloaking even the darkest twists of plot and revelations of character, Schwartz’s and Field’s songs together rank as perhaps the greatest “also-ran” score of the 1950s. As with so many past not-quite-great musicals, that’s often seen as an invitation to “repair” things and at least get the music once again into appreciable shape.

But how much is too much? Whatever the answer, this show would seem to have reached critical mass long ago. Abbott and Smith fashioned a play that was then watered down for Booth and musicalization. Elinor Renfield rewrote that libretto decades later, in a version that was used at Goodspeed Musicals in 2003. Susan DiLallo has since tweaked Renfield’s work even further, and it’s that book that Wackerman is using here. (The high-profile City Center Encores! production from 2005 used a concert-trimmed variation of the original book.) Perhaps DiLallo’s take is the closest yet to the original novel, but it’s not good theatre in any way that matters.

Take, for example, the new opening scenes. Saturday in Williamsburg, where neighborhood residents patiently await the opening of the pawn shop, so they can use their paychecks to reclaim the cherished items they hocked for the week. The number is "Mine Till Monday," a jaunty, expectant, and exultant tribute to rediscovered wealth and a (temporary) rebuke of the ails of poverty. It’s tough to imagine a better scene-setter. Isn’t this exactly the thing leading man Johnny should sing, wrapping us immediately in the plight that’s destined to fill — and eventually consume — his life? Apparently not: It’s headed by three next-to-anonymous choristers.

Johnny (played here by Jim Stanek) in fact arrives immediately after. Planning to plant a kiss on the unreceptive Hildy (Lianne Marie Dobbs), he accidentally smooches her visiting friend, Katie (Elizabeth Loyacano). The connection and attraction are immediate, so what does Johnny do? He sings a ballad, of course: “I’ll Buy You a Star,” a sweeping litany of promises both earthly and celestial. It does seem curious, though: Would Johnny sing so passionately of buying diamonds, furs, and cars for this woman he's known two minutes, tops?

We now follow Katie, as she returns home to Cissy (Klea Blackhurst) and Cissy’s live-in boyfriend (Timothy Shew). She's nonetheless entranced by Johnny, and awaiting his imminent arrival, but she’s inexperienced and afraid. Facing the promise of the future, she launches into the quiet and searching "Make the Man Love Me," hoping that she'll be able to convince him to return her searing feelings. But we just saw and heard Johnny pledge to bestow upon Katie a life full of riches — doesn’t that mean he already loves her?

Such structuring is both nonsensical and anti-theatrical, yes, but it’s also markedly inferior to the original book’s in which Johnny drove "Mine Till Monday," Katie sang "Make the Man Love Me" before Johnny unlocked his own feelings, and Johnny sang "I'll Buy You a Star" at the very end of a first act littered with his broken promises to Katie. Whatever flaws may have existed in the original book, its general layout and song-spotting were thoughtful, professional, and dramatic in a way they are not here. This is a show in need of serious detail and care, not jukebox-musical dart-throwing when it comes to determining what goes where.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
­­­The Company.
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

The rest of the production is no improvement, with certain production numbers (Cissy’s saucy “Love Is the Reason,” the jubilant “Look Who’s Dancin’”) inflated well beyond their storytelling limits and given pointedly obvious choreography (by Richard Stafford) that flattens rather than deepens, and others reconceived to shreds (Johnny’s ultimate descent into finality, originally a protracted Halloween ballet, but here a stalking-the-streets head-scratcher). Inserting Johnny and Katie’s daughter, Francie (Keaton Whittaker), as a narrator only further distances you from the action: She explains in surprising detail things that happened before her birth and, in perhaps the most cringeworthy lapse, discusses being a baby scant moments before first appearing as a 12-year-old.

Peppered with broad acting, much of which stops altogether when songs start up (music director William Waldrop leads a serviceable four-piece band), and an ensemble that creates no identifiable sense of a cohesive immigrant community, you feel every seam left by the sewing army that’s been struggling to fix A Tree Grows in Brooklyn for 60 years. Set designer Joseph Spirito and costume designer Amy C. Bradshaw do successfully evoke the period in their designs. Only Stanek, however, bothers to create a complete and believable character; his rakish, rummy Johnny is strictly by-the-acting-book, mind you, but it does help anchor a show and a production that need steadiness. And Blackhurst is predictably dynamic vocally, belting fearlessly where Booth papered over with coy, but her mealy-mouthed broad shtick grows tiresome well before her first solo concludes.

Such behavior is typical of this production overall, which never settles for real when artifice will do. That’s far and away the most visible change, though neither Wackerman nor anyone else involved here makes the case for why a sloppy, false failure is better than an honest one. If the price of recognizable emotions and sensible storytelling is too much Cissy, then bring her back. Her A Tree Grows in Brooklyn may not have worked well, but available evidence suggests it worked much better than this one.


A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
Through April 3
Theatre at St. Clements, 423 West 46th Street
Tickets online and current performance schedule: www.thepeccadillo.com