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.