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A CurtainUp Review
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn -- Encores!
By Elyse Sommer
Encores!, the beloved staged concert series of theatrical golden oldies gives today's audiences a chance to once again enjoy the flavor of some of these shows. While some like Chicago and Wonderful Town have proved to be too good for just five performances, others like this year's first production, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, don't have all the elements in place for another and longer Broadway life, but they are nevertheless well worth seeing during their brief presence in the spotlight.
Just to see and hear conductor and musical director Rob Fisher and the marvelous Encores! orchestra on the City Center stage is a thrill in these days of synthethizer heavy, over-amplified sound. So is seeing some of today's best musical theater artists sing the topnotch songs that once made even the lesser hits enjoyable and watching dancing that doesn't look like a demo for an aerobics class at your local gym.
The non-musical film adaptation of Betty Smith's novel about her childhood in a poor neighborhood at the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge (with James Dunn, Joan Blondell and Peggy Ann Garner) adhered to the novel. In adapting it for the musical stage, George Abbot and Smith switched the focus from the novelist's young alter ego, Francie Nolan, to her parents -- taking them from first kiss and joy to hardship and despair caused by the charming Johnny Nolan's inability to stay away from the pub long enough to bring home his paycheck as a singing waiter. In the book and the movie Francie had to come to terms with the wastrel father she adored and her stern and more grounded mother's demands. The musical not only made Francie more of a supporting player but focused on the more comical romantic mishaps of Francie's aunt Cissie (this buildup of the second banana roles to showcase the comic talents of Shirley Booth). With Johnny Nolan something of an outer borough Billy Bigelow replica, and the romantic lead's sister more star than featured player, even the excellent score by Arthur Schwartz and lively lyrics by Dorothy Fields couldn't keep the show open for more than a respectable if disappointing 267 at the Alvin Theater.
Jason Danieley's soaring voice is all the charm that Johnny Nolan needs to endear himself to us. If his acting range is somewhat limited, there's the plus of his fine dancing. Sally Murphy brings a strong, sweet voice to such romantic ballads as "Make the Man Love Me" and twelve-year-old Katherine Faye Barry makes an impressive City Center debut as Francie.
Rob Fisher's superb band takes up most of the stage, but director Garry Griffin steers the star and ensemble players around this challenging set-up with finnesse, as does choreographer Sergio Trujillo. His "Look Who's Dancing" deserves its reprises, as do " I'm Like a New Broom" and "I'll Buy You a Star." In his hands the show's version of a dream ballet, "Halloween Ballet" is a knockout.
David Ives who has adapted thirteen of these concerts, has streamlined the book. Though some might find the Johnny-Kathy romance a bit too glossed over, the quick switch from bride to young mpther pushing baby carriage is so amusing and clever that it works. And in the end, the strong emotional undercurrents of Smith's come through.
You'll probably want to hear the songs again after the show, and you can -- but with the original rather than the Encores! cast. Here's the link to that CD at our book store: A Tree Grows In Brooklyn Original Cast Album
The other two shows to be given the Encore! treatment this year are Purlie, based on the late Ossie Davis' Purlie Victorious, (March 31-April 3) and Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock's The Apple Tree, based on stories by Mark Twain, Frank R. Stockton and Jules Feiffer, and starring Kristin Chenoweth (May 12 to May 16).
Easy-on-the budget super gift for yourself and your musical loving friends. Tons of gorgeous pictures.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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Leonard Maltin's 2005 Movie Guide
Ridiculous!The Theatrical Life & Times of Charles Ludlam
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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