Jason Danieley and Katherine Faye Barryin A Tree Grows in Brooklyn(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Jason Danieley and Katherine Faye Barry
in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Perhaps because the Broadway musical season has yielded slim pickings so far, the Encores! series -- opening its 2005 season this weekend with A Tree Grows in Brooklyn -- looks and sounds like a rebuke. "See here," it says of the tuner, adapted by George Abbott and Betty Smith from Smith's bestseller, "there was a time when shows that didn't entirely make the grade still included first-rate songs, so you over there on the Main Stem had better shape up!"

The score that Arthur Schwartz and Dorothy Fields wrote for a musical largely built around Shirley Booth's undeniable charms is as fresh and colorful as a Valentine's Day bouquet. Call it irresistible. From the first ensemble number -- the jolly "Mine 'Til Monday," about boisterous Brooklyn types getting their belongings out of hock for the weekend -- the show revels in Schwartz's melodic tunes and Fields's deft lyrics. As the ditties keep floating across the footlights, today's audiences may grow wide-eyed with astonishment in a way that a '50s audience didn't because, half a century ago, scores this attractive were taken for granted and anything less was scorned. "Make the Man Love Me," "Look Who's Dancing," "Love is the Reason," "I'll Buy You a Star," "He Had Refinement," "Growing Pains" -- these songs beguiled theatergoers 54 years ago when A Tree Grows in Brooklyn opened. Abbott, Smith, Schwartz, and Fields found many moments in the show to reprise numbers so that the cast members had ample opportunity to display their song-and-dance talents.

And the professionals whom director Gary Griffin has gathered to nurture this version of Tree sing their big hearts out. Beginning with Jason Danieley, Sally Murphy, and Emily Skinner, the performers deliver the Schwartz and Fields songs as if their lives depended on it. Perhaps their livelihoods do, since the Encores! series is an increasingly rare opportunity for musical theater leading men and women to show what they can do with material that's worthy of their talents. Danieley's baritone is so resonant in "I'll Buy You a Star," it's as if he were singing in an echo chamber. Murphy's soprano, crisp and clear as a winter night, makes "Make the Man Love Me" soar. Skinner coaxes every laugh from "He Had Refinement," about a former husband who had everything but savoir faire. Such Broadway reliables as the adorable Nancy Anderson and the delightful John Ellison Conlee lend their chipper voices to the happy mix, and the dance breaks that Sergio Trujillo has choreographed give the show added pep. In a couple of numbers, Danieley even gives the lie to the old adage that "leading men don't dance." Look who's dancing, indeed -- in Carrie Robbins's costumes and under Ken Billington's lights.

Emily Skinner and John Ellison Conleein A Tree Grows in Brooklyn(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Emily Skinner and John Ellison Conlee
in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Were the score the only element necessary to make A Tree Grows in Brooklyn a delight, the enterprising Encores! crowd -- soon to be minus the superb music director Rob Fisher -- would be home free. Alas, it isn't. There's the Abbott-Smith libretto, here tinkered with by David Ives. None of the above have come anywhere near screenplay adapters Frank Davis, Tess Slesinger, and the uncredited Anita Loos at lifting Smith's '40s memoir off the page to satisfying results. Looking back at her Brooklyn girlhood in her fictionalized autobiography, Smith told the story of Katie Nolan (Murphy) and Johnny Nolan (Danieley) raising their daughter Francie (Katherine Faye Barry) with the help of Katie's sister, Cissy (Skinner). In their Irish enclave -- the actors here do Brooklyn accents rather than Irish brogues -- no one has much money, but Johnny and Katie have less than anyone else because he wastes his union-shop salary on liquor and gambling. As a result, Katie has to raise Francie and her brother (dropped from the musical) pretty much by herself. In doing so, she becomes tough as the bark on the ailanthus altissima that she offers her children as an example of surviving in unsympathetic surroundings.

Elia Kazan, director of the film version of Tree, understood that the drama of the tale lies in the conflict between Katie's stern manner in regard to her children and Johnny's Irish blarney. (The movie, Kazan's Hollywood debut, received 11 Oscar nominations.) Though Katie wants to show love for her children as well as for the puckish Johnny, she believes that this would be a mistake. But when Abbott and Smith wrote the libretto for their tuner, they didn't include the estranged mother-daughter repercussions of Katie's harsh resolve. Perhaps they and Schwartz and Fields spent too much time catering to Shirley Booth, who was bound to fuel ticket sales. Whatever the reasons for their oversights, they couldn't do much better than rustle up a show that choppily alternates Katie's plight with Cissy's romantic woes. The latter revolve around Cissy's marriage to a fellow whom she calls Harry (John Ellison Conlee) but whose actual name is Oscar. Their go-rounds include a scene in which Cissy pretends to give birth to a baby that she's actually adopting, but don't ask for more details -- they would only confuse you.

It has certainly been a boom year for Brooklyn on stage. We've already had Brooklyn and Brooklyn Boy, and now we have the Encores! presentation of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn -- but the last-named show is the only one that truly sings.