Also see Susan's review of Treadwell: Bright and Dark
Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia, has brought together a notably talented company for Sycamore Trees, its world premiere musical by Ricky Ian Gordon (music, lyrics, and book co-authored with Nina Mankin). Director Tina Landau and the seven cast members all have Broadway credits, and the story comes from the lived experience of Gordon and his family, but while individual elements are very good, the work as a whole doesn't quite gel yet.
In a straightforward presentational style, Sycamore Trees follows the members of the Sylvan family from the 1940s through the 1990s. Sydney (Marc Kudisch), an electrician, meets Edie (Diane Sutherland), a Borscht Belt singer and comedian; they marry, Sydney serves in World War II, they have a child, they give up their crowded Bronx apartment for the better life they imagine awaits in the suburbs (planted with sycamore trees), and they complete the family with three more children.
The tensions start early: Sydney has problems with rage and post-traumatic stress after his wartime service, Edie shrinks her personality into placating her husband's moods, and the children grow up in this pressurized environment. As they come of age in the 1960s and 1970s, oldest daughter Myrna (Jessica Molaskey) becomes a writer, middle sister Theresa (Judy Kuhn) discovers the social justice movement, youngest daughter Ginnie (Farah Alvin) worries that she has nothing to offer in a family of overachievers, and son Andrew (Tony Yazbeck), also the narrator, begins composing musicbut the domestic battles continue into the next generation.
The material is engaging and the cast is sharply observant, working to keep their characterizations from becoming simply caricatures (the bourgeois radical, the pious hippie, the saintly lover). Kudisch is utterly convincing as a man whose world is slipping from his control, and Sutherland actually seems to contract and expand along with her character's personality. Yazbeck gives a winning performance as the young man whose survival comes from telling his family story.
More problematic is the bare-stage conceit of the performance: the major components of James Schuette's scenic design are a polished platform and a few racks holding Kathleen Geldard's costume pieces. Imagination is an important part of theater, but a few more concrete visual elements would better anchor the performers, plot, and Gordon's engaging score.