fauxklore (fauxklore) wrote,

Sycamore Trees

I think the best way to start my review of Sycamore Trees, the new musical at Signature Theatre in Arlington, Virginia is to point you to Philip Larkin's poem, This Be the Verse. It's a poem worth knowing in its own right and highly relevant to this production.

I also need to give some background, which affected my reaction to the show. As many of you know, I grew up in a small town on Long Island called Island Park. The town, which has a population of about 5000 on a good day, was more or less making a transition from being a fishing village to a suburb during my childhood. The town has three parts. There's the incorporated village of Island Park. We lived (and my mother still lives) in a part of town called Barnum Island, which is in some ways literally the wrong end of the tracks. (The Long Island Railroad defines a boundary and things like beach tags and parking at the train station and so on cost more if you live on the Barnum Island side. There's also the problem of the Plantation Motel, known locally as the John Smith Motor Inn after all of their clients. To be fair, part of Barnum Isle is perfectly nice with tranquil canals, but that was not where I grew up.) Finally, there is Harbor Isle, which was sometimes semi-jokingly called Hebrew Isle in my childhood and is somewhat more upscale. I mention all this because the composer of Sycamore Trees, Ricky Ian Gordon, grew up on Harbor Isle. He's a couple of years older than I am and I might not have made the connection if someone else (a facebook friend) had not pointed it out, though the show does have a brief mention of the Harbor Isle Beach Club.

An autobiographical musical about someone whose childhood intersects with mine is inherently going to be a bit uncomfortable. The story follows a Jewish family from the Bronx to the suburbs and through the years from the 1940's through the 1990's. Edie is a singer in the Catskills who marries Sydney shortly before he leaves to fight in World War II. He never talks about what terrible things happened to him in Europe during the war, but returns a sullen and angry man, who treats Edie as a servant and verbally abuses his three daughters and his son. The oldest daughter becomes a writer, marries a non-Jew, gets involved in the early feminist movement, and falls victim to drugs. The middle daughter is an activist. The youngest is the good girl. The son is molested by an older boy, teased by everyone in town, and suffers the torments of growing up gay in a small town. He does find a good partner, but loses him to AIDS. Despite everything, the ending is at least somewhat hopeful. This is obviously not a laugh a minute show, though there is a surprising amount of humor amid the tragedy.

As for the music, I found the first half more to my taste than the second, but that is probably because (to quote one of the characters in the show) I need high-brow lessons. "Ours" (sung by Edie and Sydney as they fall in love) is very lively in the classic show tune mode and "The Last Time I Saw Him" (sung by Edie as Sydney returns from the war) is lovely and poignant. The title song was also enjoyable. The music got more operatic and into the mode that people describe as sweeping and soaring as the show went along. That tends to blend together a bit for people like me who have trouble with anything much past Porter and Gershwin as show tunes go. I do, however, want to note "Self Help" from the second act, which was funny and effective. And I thought that "Father's Song" did an excellent job of revealing Sydney's conflict about his own role in things.

Overall, I found the show powerful and provocative. At one level, I wanted to be able to apologize to Ricky on behalf of Island Park, but at another I know that nothing has changed much about suburban America. I did also find myself wondering how much was factual, as I am reasonably sure that he made some things happen to make a better story. (For example, as far as I know, his oldest sister recovered from her drug addiction and died of cancer. Which is still tragic, but harder for a family to blame themselves for.)

I should also briefly mention the performances. All of the cast seemed natural and believable in their roles. Marc Kudisch was excellent as Sydney, making him both unlikeable and sympathetic. Diane Sutherland was radiant as Edie. Tony Yazbek was also notable as Andrew, effectively communicating the pain and eventual triumph.

I can't really see the show working on Broadway, but I could see it making the rounds of more intimate venues. I'll be very interested in seeing what sort of reviews it gets from people who don't have to deal with the local aspect.
Tags: musicals, theatre

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