The new City Center Encores! season opens with a nourishing serving of what the long-running series does best — revisiting underseen or all-but-forgotten entries from the American musical canon, often too quaint to withstand a full-scale revival, in pared-down concert versions with robust orchestrations. This presentation of “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” can’t quite shake off the whiff of mothballs or correct the flaws of the 1951 musical. But it does invigorate the touching relic with charm, affecting emotional sincerity, smooth staging and some gorgeous singing.
Adapted (and originally produced and directed) by George Abbott with Betty Smith from the latter’s popular autobiographical novel about growing up in Brooklyn’s poor immigrant community of Williamsburg at the turn of the last century, the show was scored by Arthur Schwartz with lyrics by Dorothy Fields. But despite upbeat reviews and the public’s affection for the book and 1945 Elia Kazan movie, the musical was a commercial disappointment, running only eight months on Broadway.
Part of the problem may have been the verdant orchard in which this “Tree” bloomed: It opened in the same season as “The King and I,” “Call Me Madam” and “Guys and Dolls.” And while the creatives clearly adhered to the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical-play model launched into vogue a few seasons earlier by “Oklahoma!” and “Carousel” — this show closely resembles the latter plotwise, in its melancholy central romantic relationship — this is an altogether gentler vehicle. Its sweet sentiments are unassumingly peddled toward quiet rewards rather than the sweeping emotions of more enduring musicals.
The show’s other problem is its shift in the novel’s focus away from bookish adolescent Francie Nolan to the courtship and troubled marriage of her parents Johnny and Katie; and the bulking up of secondary character Cissy to capitalize on the considerable talents of original cast member Shirley Booth. There’s a joust for narrative supremacy, which neither side wins, between the couple’s broken dreams and the more comic romantic pursuits of brassy Brooklyn broad Cissy. This robs the story of a firm center.
Working from David Ives’ pruned concert adaptation of Abbott and Smith’s book, director Gary Griffin and Encores! music director Rob Fisher present the musical for what it is. They refrain from radically trying to redress the weaknesses of its dated story or its appealing but slightly underpowered songs, laced with Irish flavors and barbershop harmonies. But thanks to savvy casting and some supremely confident singers, the show constitutes a consistently entertaining evening.
As Johnny Nolan, a not-too-distant relative of “Carousel’s” Billy Bigelow, Jason Danieley’s wholesome persona and unforced charisma help maintain crucial sympathy for a character who rarely takes a right turn. Despite his unswerving love for his wife and his sensitive embrace of fatherhood, he is unable to provide the material support he knows Katie and Francie deserve. Pouring his waiter’s salary into booze and gambling, he is too unreliable to hold down a job until a reawakening that comes too late, prompting him to sign on as a digger on the Holland Tunnel.
Danieley’s silken, broad-ranging tenor wraps warmly around songs such as Johnny’s wishful reform in “I’m Like a New Broom,” his earnestly romantic “I’ll Buy You a Star,” the paternally sappy “Growing Pains” and “Mine ’til Monday,” a joyous account of getting prized possessions out of hock on payday that neatly encapsulates the show’s sense of borrowed, fleeting happiness.
Like “Carousel’s” Julie Jordan, Katie is a sweet gal who makes a bad romantic choice. Her willingness to stand by her loser husband seems obtuse, but Sally Murphy’s open-hearted perf lends conviction to her character’s steadfastness. She finds pathos in her gradual transition from sunny romantic optimism to bruised, spent acceptance of her sorry lot. There’s a certain formality to Murphy’s full-bodied vocals at first, but she delivers a poignant “Make the Man Love Me” and a lovely, spirited “Look Who’s Dancing.”
The role of Katie’s sister Cissy may be forever owned by Booth, but Emily Skinner’s vivaciousness, sharp comic sense and lusty singing chops make the unapologetically crass romantic the most winning character onstage. With a nasal Brooklyn yawp, Skinner milks Fields’ funny lyrics for all they’re worth in Cissy’s ode to her idealized “high-bred” first husband, “He Had Refinement” (“If the wind blew up my bloomers/Would his face get red/He undressed with all the lights off/Until we was wed”).
Skinner gets sturdy comic support from fellow “The Full Monty” alumnus John Ellison Conlee (with Danieley also on hand, this is practically a reunion) as the lovable lunkhead who’s the keeper among her string of paramours; and from Jeff Brooks as her first flame, who makes a deflating reappearance in “Is That My Prince?” Nancy Anderson also scores as prickly Hildy, passed over for Katie as Johnny’s girl.
Right down to the tykes, this is a solid ensemble, and they handle Sergio Trujillo’s boisterous dance interludes with gusto. The exception is Johnny’s dream ballet, a now hopelessly clunky narrative device in which confrontation with a lurid procession of floozies, drunks and gamblers forces him to end his downward spiral.
The story comes to life vividly enough even in this concert staging with John Lee Beatty’s minimal hints at set design — signs, lampposts, window frames within a gilt frame — and Carrie Robbins’ functional period costumes. But while the show generally conveys the local color and vitality of the setting, its second act-opening production number, “That’s How It Goes” — in which laundry mirrors the hard grind of life — feels vague and designless.
Mostly, however, the songs are given vibrant, enriching treatment by Fisher’s 29-piece onstage orchestra, always the high point of any Encores! show.