Great perfs are undermined by a predictable book about growing up in a combustible Jewish household.
“Sycamore Trees,” a memory musical by composer Ricky Ian Gordon, makes its debut as the second of three tuners commissioned by Arlington, Va.’s Signature Theater under its American Musical Voices Project. The production features yeoman performances from a cast of Broadway regulars that includes Marc Kudisch, but is undermined by a predictable book about growing up in a combustible Jewish household and an assortment of generally undistinguished melodies.
Underwritten by the Shen Family Foundation, the Voices project debuted last year with Michael John LaChiusa’s mammoth four-hour musical “Giant” and concludes next year with a work by Joseph Thalken (“Harold and Maude: The Musical”). Each composer has been given free rein to develop a work of his choosing.That liberty might warrant some rethinking since “Giant” and now “Sycamore” could have benefited from a strong hand at their early stages.Gordon (“The Grapes of Wrath” opera) has written a deeply personal account of growing up with three headstrong sisters as the gay son of a New York family ruled by an iron-fisted father. It’s a by-the-decades account of the growing family’s many travails from the 1940s to the 1990s, presented as flashbacks from the present on a bare stage with props inserted as needed. Tina Landau directs with an emphasis on a casual and unscripted style punctuated by distinct episodes running the gamut from light humor to soul-wrenching grief.Earnest songs embellish each character’s intimate thoughts and underscore the ensemble’s commitments to family unity.Tony Yazbeck anchors the evening as son Andrew, Gordon’s alter-ego and self-appointed emcee who revisits his youth with help from sisters Myrna (Jessica Molaskey), Theresa (Judy Kuhn) and Ginnie (Farah Alvin). It’s a childhood spent quaking in the shadow of Kudisch’s sexist and perpetually angry father, who carries the scars of World War II service along with a cargo load of prejudice. Diane Sutherland is the submissive and suffering wife, Edie, who tries desperately to rescue every violent outburst with jokes from her earlier days as a Borscht Belt comedian.The talented ensemble offers uniformly convincing performances, which is commendable considering that most of the characters are one-dimensional portraits. Their rich voices, backed by a seven-piece band, showcase Gordon’s simple melodies with style. Enjoyable numbers include the company’s “Sycamore Trees” and Yazbeck’s tender “My Mom Is a Singer.” Kudisch’s deep baritone is offered on numerous occasions, especially the character’s repentant number, “Father’s Song,” and the earlier “Pigeons.” Yet it’s not likely to be the music that audience members retain as a lasting impression.As traumatic and heart-felt as the story clearly is to author Gordon, much of it registers as a cliché-ridden reprise of the overly chronicled baby boom generation. The tuner is largely devoted to a guided tour of the boomer experience, and of every parent’s efforts to cope, as it passes through the rebellious 1960s, the hallucinogenic 1970s, Vietnam and onward. Even Gordon’s loss of his lover to AIDS, while dramatic, offers no new insights into this tragic disease introduced in the 1980s.
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