Does a tree still grow in Brooklyn? A poignant revival of a musical about struggling upward from poverty reminds us that yes, it can.
The original musical, "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn," was based on the nostalgic, best-selling 1943 novel of the same name by Betty Smith, about her impoverished early 20th-century childhood.
Smith adapted her book with George Abbott for a Broadway musical, which was burnished by Arthur Schwartz's melodies and lyrics by Dorothy Fields, and the 1951 production had a 267-performance run on Broadway.
The delightful Peccadillo Theater Company revival, currently performing off-Broadway at the Theatre at St. Clement's, is based on an Elinor Renfield version that's been further refined by Susan DiLallo and Dan Wackerman, who also directed. Wackerman has found a talented cast to perform this unusual mix of comedy and melodrama, which has been rarely performed over the years.
Set in 1902 and 1914 Williamsburg, the story focuses on the courtship and marriage of Johnny and Katie Nolan, parents of bookworm Francie, (a perfectly charming Keaton Whittaker) who was the teenage narrator of the original book. Whittaker provides some narration for Act 1, then appears as 12-year-old Francie in the second act.
Handsome ne'er-do-well Johnny, a singing waiter with a drinking problem, is played with an abundance of charm by Jim Stanek, whose strong tenor and expressiveness are well-suited to this role. His soaring voice is masterful on solos such as "Don't Be Afraid," and "I'll Buy You a Star."
Elizabeth Loyacano also sings beautifully as Katie, particularly the heartfelt ballad, "Make the Man Love Me." Katie's youthful hope and sweet love harden into bitter coldness during the years she spends in angry poverty with her unrealistic, alcoholic husband.
The comedic character of Cissy, Katie's older sister, confused the original, much more melodramatic musical, when Abbott beefed up the role to showcase Shirley Booth. In Peccadillo's more balanced version, Cissy is portrayed with brass and sass by Klea Blackhurst, who ably belts out the show's best-known comedic tune, "He Had Refinement." Blackhurst gives a warm, loving air to her role as Francie's wistfully romantic and often very funny aunt.
This adaptation is replete with upbeat musical and dance numbers in the first act, such as "I'm Like a New Broom" and "Look Who's Dancin'," all ably performed by the ensemble, as the future still looks mostly bright for newlyweds Johnny and Katie.
But things turn darker in Act 2, 10 years later, as Johnny continues his downward slide with nightly drinking and unrealistic ambitions. His surrealistic hallucination, "Nightmare Interlude," presages his maudlin end, but the musical's final scene has an upbeat focus on Francie's hopeful future.
Four onstage musicians, led by Wiliam Waldrop on piano, provide full and rousing sound, seated atop Joseph Spirito's simple, efficient set. Colorful costumes by Amy C. Bradshaw brighten the dance numbers and firmly anchor the period.
The lovely songs by Schwartz and Fields hold up extremely well, and Peccadillo presents an appealing, spirited presentation of a classic American story.