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Sycamore Trees

Marc Kudisch gives a commanding performance in Ricky Ian Gordon's autobiographical musical about growing up in post-War America.

Marc Kudisch, Tony Yazbeck, and Judy Kuhn
in Sycamore Trees
(© Scott Suchman)
Both the promise and the perils of writing about one's own family are on full display in Signature Theatre's world premiere production of Sycamore Trees, Ricky Ian Gordon's musical about growing up in post-World War II America.

Gordon's score is a pleasant mélange of styles, but his autobiographical book (written with assistance from Nina Mankin) seems more like sociology than storytelling. Still, a stellar cast and brisk, straightforward direction from Gordon's longtime collaborator, Tina Landau, help turn Sycamore Trees into an enjoyable summer diversion.

The time sweep is epic, stretching from World War II to the 1990's. The storytelling is cramped, however, as Gordon merely outlines the lives of a working-class couple and their four bright but troubled children, the youngest of whom is Gordon's alter-ego. The trees in the title refer to the flora found when Sydney (Marc Kudisch) and Edie Sylvan (Diane Sutherland) depart the Bronx and move to Long Island.

But rather than a suburban idyll, the Sylvans (the name itself refers to trees) run smack into the afflictions making headlines regarding American life in the second half of the last century. They're all here, from ethnic bigotry and drug addiction to women's liberation, teen pregnancy, AIDS, and homosexuality. It's probably too much for one show (never mind one family) and Gordon keeps vague the connection between how his characters act and why.

The storytelling is deconstructed here, as the family squabbles over how their story should be presented. Gordon has each character talk directly to us, but they also engage in traditional interaction. Songs arise organically from the action and are a mix of ballads and up-tempo tunes. Early numbers, some of which are full of hope, often have period overtones. Later songs sound firmly contemporary, but are more downbeat in theme, with names such as "Self Help," "Healing," and "Far Away," as drugs, disease, and disillusionment wither the family's optimism.

The minimalist storytelling technique is also mirrored in James Schuette's stark set, a barren wood-plank platform with props and costumes stored onstage. Fred Lassen conducts a small, bright-sounding band perched high in a catwalk.

Kudisch, always a commanding presence, offers us much more than is found in Gordon's book. A rough-hewn Archie Bunker-type, Sydney loves his family but cannot control his domineering impulses. Indeed, Sydney seethes with barely repressed anger, which Gordon vaguely suggests may be related to the horrors of war. In act two, Kudisch squeezes an entire play's worth of emotion into "Father's Song," lamenting Sydney's role in the emotional instability running rampant in his family.

Once a performing star in the Catskills, Edie is now relegated to playing second banana in her own household, in service to husband and children. It's thrilling to hear Sutherland's bright soprano spark her ballads, such as "The Last Time I Saw Him."

The show also benefits from its cast of Broadway veterans, especially Jessica Molaskey, Judy Kuhn, and Farah Alvin, who each offer vibrant performances as the couple's daughters; Tony Yazbeck is Andrew (the Gordon alter-ego); and Matthew Risch plays a number of characters, most notably the adult Andrew's AIDS-suffering partner, David ("who rained into my life," in Gordon's overwrought phrasing).

Sycamore Trees might benefit from careful pruning, perhaps losing some of the weaker branches in order to let the more promising limbs flourish.


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