×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

It's been 52 years since the last major professional production of 1951 Broadway musical "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn." Though the 1943 bestseller has never been out of print, the musical quickly disappeared from view. The new version is a vast improvement on the original -- and no doubt will extend the tuner's future stage life.

With:
Francie Nolan - Remy Zaken Miss McShane - Mary Jo McConnell Hildy - Megan Walker Della - Leslie Marie Collins Petey - Zachary Halley Willie - Todd Buonopane Allie - Kevin Loreque Johnny Nolan - Deven May Aloysius Moran - Tom Souhrada Katie - Kerry O'Malley Harry - Adam Heller Cissy - Sari Wagner Max - Steve Routman Nellie - Amber Stone Mr. Moriarty - Frank Stancati Neighborhood woman - Leslie Klug Maudie - Katy Lin Persutti Mr. Swanson - Steve Routman

This review was corrected on Nov. 12, 2003.

It’s been 52 years since the last major professional production of 1951 Broadway musical “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.” Though the 1943 bestseller has never been out of print, the musical quickly disappeared from view, hostage to debates among the estates of the show’s creators over revisions. Goodspeed Musicals finally received the go-ahead for a new production, adapted and directed by Elinor Renfield, a relative of composer Arthur Schwartz. The new version is a vast improvement on the original — and no doubt will extend the tuner’s future stage life — but a generous dose of theatrical MiracleGro would be needed to bring the show back to Gotham.

The musical’s failure was largely blamed on a script too tailored to accommodate the comic talents of Shirley Booth, in what was essentially a supporting role. But the show, directed by George Abbott and co-written by Abbott and novelist Betty Smith, made other missteps. The arrival of the book’s most appealing character — young Francie Nolan — was unnecessarily delayed, and an elaborate nightmare Halloween ballet in the second act, depicting the final descent of her goodhearted but alcoholic father Johnny Nolan, was a mistake.

Renfield’s attempts to rectify these problems make the show more integrated. The dance is scrapped, and Francie is introduced in the first scene of the play as a young girl with a natural talent for telling stories. She sits down on her tenement steps to write about her family’s poor but proud life in the early years of the 20th century. In addition, the Booth role of Aunt Cissy is cut back, giving the balance back to the three-member Nolan family unit.

Though the surreal ballet is gone (Herbert Ross choreographed the original), the scene that motivates Johnny’s final fall is still not as profound as it needs to be. (The 1945 film — Elia Kazan’s first — used the revelation of Katie Nolan’s unexpected pregnancy to push the dreamer husband to go off to hard work until he drops.) Bringing Francie in earlier helps, but the show still spends most of the first act on the immigrant Irish neighborhood and the courtship of Katie and Johnny: The songs by Schwartz and Fields leave no other choice. And though Cissy’s presence is reduced (though, thankfully, not her delightful songs), the role still is written and played outside the world of the play. Sari Wagner’s Cissy remains entertaining comic relief, but, as delivered here, there isn’t a connection between the sisters.

The Goodspeed production’s most valuable asset is Deven May’s Johnny. For the show to work at all, it needs a father who is a true charmer, able to mesmerize not only his wife and daughter but the audience. May, who starred in Off Broadway’s “Bat Boy,” is charismatic as the man with a heart as full as his glass.

Kerry O’Malley (the Baker’s Wife in the Broadway revival of “Into the Woods”) goes from swept-away girlfriend to sweeping hausfrau. The show’s new adaptation could have supplied more material depicting Katie as something more than a before-and-after tintype. (Making “Don’t Be Afraid,” formerly sung by a father to his daughter, into a mother’s anthem of fortitude is a smart step — it’s just not enough.)

Thankfully, Francie is not cast to be cute, and Remy Zaken’s portrayal rightly puts the emphasis on her street smarts, even if the story’s innate melodrama provides a good share of mush, too.

The most visually impressive element in the show is the opening black-and-white slide projection of a turn-of-the-century Brooklyn street. The image gives way to a rotating unit set by James Noone that doesn’t leave much room for Jennifer Paulson Lee’s welcome choreography.

Coming across best in the production is the show’s score: pleasant, atmospheric and delightful, with one great ballad (“Make the Man Love Me”). The score’s old-fashioned, tasteful and literate style fits the material well, but it also sets limits for the show that doesn’t allow for too much tinkering.

Renfield has reinserted a little ditty, “Tuscaloosa,” that was dropped from the show. It gives Johnny and his singing sidekicks a deft piece of period folderol. She also turns a throwaway chorus song, “If You Haven’t Got a Sweetheart,” into a lovely moment for the sisters, perhaps their only one.

The show’s most significant musical change is the introduction of a Schwartz-Fields song of unknown origin, “I’m Proud of You.” It is first sung by wise child Francie to her failing father, and then in the finale by Francie and her mother. It gives the show an additional emotional connection, but one that comes too late to get out the handkerchiefs.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn

Goodspeed Opera House, East Haddam, Conn.; 398 seats, $55 top

Production: A Goodspeed Musicals presentation of a musical in two acts with music by Arthur Schwartz, lyrics by Dorothy Fields, book by George Abbott and Betty Smith, revised by Elinor Renfield, based on the novel by Betty Smith. Directed by Renfield. Musical direction and arrangements, Michael O'Flaherty; choreography, Jennifer Paulson Lee.

Creative: Sets, James Noone; costumes, Pamela Scofield; lighting, Jeff Croiter; orchestrations, Dan DeLange; production stage manager, Donna Cooper Hilton. Opened Oct. 10, 2003. Reviewed Oct. 25. Running time: 2 HOURS, 30 MIN.

Cast: Francie Nolan - Remy Zaken Miss McShane - Mary Jo McConnell Hildy - Megan Walker Della - Leslie Marie Collins Petey - Zachary Halley Willie - Todd Buonopane Allie - Kevin Loreque Johnny Nolan - Deven May Aloysius Moran - Tom Souhrada Katie - Kerry O'Malley Harry - Adam Heller Cissy - Sari Wagner Max - Steve Routman Nellie - Amber Stone Mr. Moriarty - Frank Stancati Neighborhood woman - Leslie Klug Maudie - Katy Lin Persutti Mr. Swanson - Steve RoutmanWith: Michael Buchanan, Zachary Halley, Danny Rothman, Adam Shonkwiler.

More Legit

  • My Fair Lady Laura Benanti

    Listen: Laura Benanti on 'My Fair Lady' and the Secret to Her Melania Trump Impersonation

    Laura Benanti is now playing her dream role on Broadway. At the same time, the Tony winner (“Gypsy”) is also playing her toughest part ever. Listen to this week’s podcast below: “It’s the most demanding part I think I’ll probably play,” said Benanti, now appearing as Eliza Doolittle in Lincoln Center Theater’s well-received revival of [...]

  • Hamilton West End Production.

    'Hamilton' Panic Over Mistaken Reports of Gunfire Injures Three in San Francisco

    Three people were injured after mistaken reports of an active shooter at a San Francisco production of “Hamilton” caused attendees to flee the theater. CNN reported that a woman experienced a medical emergency — later determined to be a heart attack — during a scene in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s play wherein Founding Father Alexander Hamilton is shot on [...]

  • The American Clock review

    London Theater Review: 'The American Clock'

    Time is money. Money is time. Both come unstuck in “The American Clock.” Arthur Miller’s kaleidoscopic account of the Great Depression, part autobiography, part social history, crawls through the decade after the Wall Street crash, dishing up snapshots of daily life. In the Old Vic’s classy revival, director Rachel Chavkin (“Hadestown”) tunes into the play’s [...]

  • Jake Gyllenhaal

    Off Broadway Review: Jake Gyllenhaal in 'Sea Wall/A Life'

    Comfy? Okay, let’s talk Death: sudden death, painful death, lingering death, accidental death, and whatever other kinds of death happen to come into the receptive minds of playwrights Simon Stephens (“Sea Wall”) and Nick Payne (“A Life”). The writing in these separate monologues — playing together on a double bill at the Public Theater — [...]

  • Michael Jackson Estate Cancels Musical Test-Run

    Michael Jackson Estate Cancels Musical Test-Run

    With an HBO documentary that places strong allegations of abuse against Michael Jackson premiering in two weeks, the late singer’s estate announced Thursday that it’s canceling a scheduled Chicago test run of a jukebox musical about him. The estate and its producing partner in the musical, Columbia Live Stage, said that they’re setting their sights on going [...]

  • All About Eve review

    West End Review: Gillian Anderson and Lily James in 'All About Eve'

    To adapt a crass old adage: it’s “All About Eve,” not “All About Steve.” Stripping Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s sharp-witted screenplay about a waning theater star of its period trappings, Ivo van Hove’s stage adaptation fine-tunes its feminism for our own sexist age — image-obsessed, anti-aging, the time of Time’s Up. Rather than blaming Lily James’ [...]

  • Adam Shankman

    Listen: Why Adam Shankman Directs Every Movie Like It's a Musical

    Director Adam Shankman’s latest movie, the Taraji P. Henson comedy “What Men Want,” isn’t a musical. But as one of Hollywood’s top director-choreographers of musicals and musical sequences, he approaches even non-musicals with a sense of tempo. Listen to this week’s podcast below: “When I read a script, it processes in my head like a [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content