'Sycamore Trees' is a compelling musical of surburban secrets
One of the attributes of musicals that people love is the tuneful discipline they confer on the disorder of life, the power they have to channel churning pools of thought and feeling into melody, 16 or 32 manageable bars at a time. We all know, however, that reality is rarely as elegantly structured as a series of lilting ballads, and we are ordained to make up our own free-form songs as we go along.

That messier sense of progression becomes, refreshingly, the guiding style of "Sycamore Trees," Ricky Ian Gordon's deeply personal, strikingly impressionistic new musical, receiving its world premiere at Signature Theatre. Aided by some inventive detailing by the composer's longtime collaborator, director Tina Landau, "Sycamore Trees" is the kaleidoscopic memoir of one American family and the bittersweet flavors that suffuse their clashes and calamities, large and small.

With a thematic spine this familiar -- the love and discord in a post-World War II Jewish household on Long Island -- "Sycamore Trees" could have been consigned to the dog-eared files of confessional autobiography. But Gordon, a composer of art songs and opera along with emotive musicals, finds in the ordinary abrasions of American home life a tapestry of unique, singable secrets. In a rough father's gentle hobby or a quiet daughter's penchant for watercolors, he conjures musical moments that add to his portraits what seem to be fine strokes of simple, authentic personal history.

He's been fortunate enough, too, to attract the sort of cast that can bring the requisite vocal, physical and psychological acumen to the material. The Broadway-tested Judy Kuhn, Marc Kudisch, Jessica Molaskey, Diane Sutherland, Farah Alvin, Tony Yazbeck and Matthew Risch conspire grandly to flesh out the family dynamic, a clan whose members struggle to assert their individual identities, often at great emotional cost.

Listening to Gordon's compositions, some redolent of postwar pastiche, some written in more modern idioms, you have to free yourself of the expectation that they'll resolve themselves with a tunesmith's flourish. (A product of Signature's musical-commissioning program, the American Musical Voices Project, the show is probably best suited to this non-commercial sphere.) The music, some of it quite lovely, is meant -- like the dialogue portions of "Sycamore Trees" -- to seem improvisational, as if it were being pulled from the ether and pasted into a scrapbook of the mind.

That is not to say that the musical is inaccessible. Far from it. You'll recognize the people Gordon and his co-librettist, Nina Mankin, write about here, especially Sydney (Kudisch) and Edie (Sutherland), an earthy Bronx couple of the 1940s. He's a rugged electrician back from the war, she's a flirty former Catskills singer with a taste for salty jokes. They're based on Gordon's family members who, incidentally, were the subjects of "Home Fires," a well-received 1992 social history by journalist Donald Katz.

Like much of their generation, the Sydney and Edie of "Sycamore Trees" move to the suburbs and raise a brood of driven, loving, neurotic, damaged baby boomers: Myrna (Molaskey), destined to be a magazine writer; Theresa (Kuhn), a back-to-the-earth activist type; Ginnie (Alvin), who can't quite find herself, and Andrew (Yazbeck), who wants to be a composer. (Risch plays various men, including Andrew's lover, David.)

The gleaning of candid interludes from the lives of the Sylvans, who settle in a neighborhood lined with newly planted sycamores -- a supposed idyll where the "girls are all Sandra Dees/In their flats and capris" -- owes a debt to the pioneering PBS documentary, "An American Family." And the mode of storytelling, a lot of it addressed directly to us, seems an homage to Thornton Wilder's American classic, "Our Town."

Playing out on the polished-wood floor of James Schuette's attractively bare set, "Sycamore Trees" splits its focus among the family members. To their credit, the show's creators dispense with eyebrow-raised irony; compassion for the characters is effectively conveyed in song. "Two Men" is a sweet duet for Yazbeck and Risch that describes the safe haven they provide each other; in "I'll Get Clean," Molaskey embodies a Myrna who is poignantly receding into a drug-addled haze.

Landau expertly steers the company through the turmoil that is sparked in the family, principally by the excellent Kudisch's restlessly angry Sydney, a man who turns his sense of personal disappointment on his children. Yet it feels as if there's still work to be done on "Sycamore Trees." At the outset, Andrew tells us that the evening is both an examination of "a family through six decades" and "a country trying to find its way." As it stands, the second vow isn't kept.

Even so, the puzzle pieces of a vivid family's emotional life do form a bracing mosaic, one that allows us to feel our time sorting through them is utterly worthwhile.
- Peter Marks, The Washington Post, June 2, 2010