'Sycamore Trees' tells a rough slice-of-life story
Many things make Ricky Ian Gordon's new work, "Sycamore Trees," unique: Its ability to integrate musical styles, mingling an atonal approach with echoes of Broadway and pop; its ability to blend effervescent comic moments with scenes of desolation; its ability to be not only a celebration in song of American life from the 1940s to the 1990s, but a celebration of song itself.

Currently at Signature Theatre, "Sycamore Trees," whose book is by Nina Mankin and Gordon, is based on Gordon's own past. At the beginning, its main character, Andrew (Tony Yazbeck), announces that he has "a story to tell." In the upbeat opening number, Gordon's music and lyrics suggest that this story will be exhilarating and joyful, despite its explorations of grief.

After the prelude, the story loops back to the 1940s. Edie (the exquisite Diane Sutherland), a professional singer, and Sydney (Marc Kudisch), fall in love and marry. Both Sutherland and Kudisch are supremely talented actors, who convincingly set an optimistic tone. They sing "Ours," a peppy number accompanied by a spirited period dance. But soon Sydney goes off to fight in World War II, leaving Edie in the Bronx, singing the poignant lamentation "The Last Time I Saw Him."

In addition to the great variety in its music, much of the appeal of "Sycamore Trees" depends on its structure. Gordon and Mankin seamlessly weave together the trouble that begins when Sydney returns from war an angry man and the simultaneous delight created by the birth of Edie's and Sydney's children: Myrna (Jessica Molaskey), Theresa (Judy Kuhn), Ginnie (Farah Alvin) and Andrew. Molaskey, Kuhn, Alvin and Yazbeck play their very different roles intelligently and with passion.

By the 1950s, the cockroach-infested Bronx apartment is too small to contain six outsized personalities. A fast-talking character called The Man (the delightful Matthew Risch) convinces the family to move to the suburbs, where there is no crime, where there are beaches and trees sycamore trees, which grow quickly, creating instant green communities.

But life on Long Island is not the dream it's cracked up to be, as Sydney's anger has followed him and affected his family. Kudisch is powerful as the insensitive brute who orders his wife around; the children are collateral damage. In the heart-rending "My Mother is a Singer," Andrew begs his mother to sing of what she gave up to keep her marriage intact.

Gordon continues to chronicle the next decades, the music occasionally referencing the music of the times, but more often referencing Gordon's own rich musical vocabulary, in which a fast, frantic cry of emotional angst ("I Gotta Get Out of Here") is followed by a lush hymn to art and Myra's hard-edged "I'll Get Clean" precedes a lyrical love duet.

Tina Landau's direction is sensitive to the intense variety in the book and music, her inventive choreography at times whipping up great explosions of movement across the Signature stage, at times stilling the action to focus on a bed, a character, a voice. James Schuette's set includes a balcony, where huge, multicolored numbers record the passing decades, a shift neatly reflected in Kathleen Geldard's era-oriented costumes.

If "Sycamore Trees" were simply an autobiographical tribute to Gordon's past, it would have limited force, but it's aimed at the American dream itself, which gives it broader emotional resonance. With his ability to put old ideas about love, unity and community into new post-modern musical settings, full of unconventional tunes and harmonies, Gordon ultimately achieves in "Sycamore Trees" a fresh and stimulating tribute to the thing he seems to cherish most: family -- his, yours, everyone's.
- BARBARA MACKAY , The Washington Examiner, June 4, 2010