Two ecological themes — urban sprawl and deforestation — are explored in this ambitious but awkwardly conceived operatic tuner that barely rises above the level of community theater. Hampered by a convoluted yet simplistic libretto and an undernourished score, “The Tree” is further undermined by an uneven ensemble ranging from gifted to amateurish. The only consistent elements are the inspired costumes of Karolyn Kiisel and the excellent accompaniment of music director-pianist David O. and percussionist Jim Snodgrass.
Set in contempo Southern California, the action follows the star-crossed relationship of tree spirit-turned-mortal Jessica (soprano Khorshed Dastoor) and architectural visionary Frank (tenor Mathew Edwardsen).
The non-singing Narrator (Drew Lavey) is definitely necessary to dissect the plot points as Jessica attempts to win Frank’s love, aided by fellow tree spirits in human form Tolorosa Dellaroyo (Marya Basaraba) and Bramble (Clint Steinhauser).
Meanwhile, in the quaint suburban community of Edgeville, Frank attempts to battle the ecological villainy of his upwardly mobile ex-wife, Patty (Catherine Ireland); her father, the cartoonishly corrupt Mayor Jim Grandy (Eric Greenlee); and Patty’s new hubby, nefarious land developer Hank (Matthew Acuff).
Neither Peter Wing Healey’s predictable lyrics nor composer Linda Dowdell’s forgettable melodies provide any substance to the plot’s good-vs.-evil machinations. The dramatic throughline leads to a final confrontation over whether Edgeville’s aged oak tree, which contains Jessica’s life force, will be cut down to make way for Hank’s planned mall/condo complex.
On the plus side, Dastoor (alternating with Lucia Lynn) is believable as the former tree spirit who takes on the persona of a beauteous movie star to win the heart of her beloved. Although Edwardsen offers more veracity as a tenor than a thesp, he manages some romantic credibility in the Jessica/Frank love duet “Let’s Pretend.”
Despite sporting an unintelligible, meandering Castilian accent, Basaraba’s Tolorosa offers the show’s one true comic moment, as she tries to explain to former tree dweller Jessica the differences in the mating rituals of flora and humans (“Every Human Has One Springtime”). Steinhauser acquits himself well as the constantly active, Puck-like Bramble.
Ireland has little to work with but is believable as social climber Patty. Unfortunately, Greenlee and Acuff lack both the vocal and acting skills to offer any weight to bad guys Mayor Jim and Hank, respectively.
The efforts of the production’s large chorus are hampered by the acoustics at L.A. Theater Center’s subterranean space, turning their dramatic outpourings into unintelligible blare.