Cissy and Harry and Katie and Johnny
Actress Elizabeth Dimon was so delightfully adroit last spring in the Caldwell Theatre Company's production of The King's Mare and the Florida Stage's Quills that it should surprise no one that she walks away with the part of Cissy, the female half of the comic pair of lovers in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, now at the Royal Palm Festival Dinner Theatre. Made famous in the 1951 Broadway show by Shirley Booth, Cissy is a role that calls for a good voice and more than a smidgen of comic timing. Lucky for us Dimon also brings along her elastic sense of humor, the better to snap some life into the limp, mushy sentimentality of the musical.
Lucky for Dimon she's paired with the inspired Daniel Franzese, who plays her partner Harry as an astoundingly stupid mistake of nature, a guy who looks as if he were a grown-up version of Pugsley from The Addams Family. With these two interjecting a much needed sense of the ridiculous, a person could sit through A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and enjoy the score and the comedy, content not to notice that the family saga going on around them is anemic and frail. OK, maybe you'd have to be Harry not to notice.
Harry -- well, his name isn't Harry. Harry is the name that Cissy gives all her live-in lovers, the better to remember her first Harry, who "had refinement." This year's Harry is so dumb that he actually believes Cissy when she tells him she gave birth while he was in the kitchen getting her a snack. (In reality she had her sister sneak in a baby she wants to adopt while he's out of the room.) For her part Cissy is so misguided as to the merits of her first love that she sings, "He passed me the paper when his soup was fanned/He only used four-letter words I didn't understand." Refinement, indeed.
Originally directed and produced by the legendary George Abbott (and adapted by him and author Betty Smith from Smith's best-selling 1943 novel), Brooklyn lacks a compelling book, but it does have an agreeable score and a good dose of respect for its characters. Set amid New York City's turn-of-the-century Irish immigrant population, the musical has little in common with the popular story that inspired it or with the two film adaptations. (Joan Blondell played Cissy in the 1945 movie.) Anyone who remembers the book, which centered on Francie, the child of Katie and Johnny Nolan, or the 1951 production may be surprised to find the version at the Royal Palm features an upbeat ending, tacked on by director Bob Bogdanoff, apparently with the blessing of Joy Abbott, George Abbott's widow.
At any rate the musical traces how Katie (Irene Adjan) and Johnny (Barry Tarallo) meet, wed, and lose their innocence as Johnny, a singing waiter, gets kicked out of the union (the singing waiters' union, presumably) for repeated drunkenness, leaving Katie, ever the long-suffering Irish wife, to take in washing and bring up daughter Francie virtually alone. It's never clear why Katie stays loyal to Johnny year after year, as he's fired from job after job, including one as the piano player at a whorehouse. And it's not clear why we should care, except that -- thanks to the Arthur Schwartz/Dorothy Fields score -- Johnny and Katie and others around them sing wonderfully about their woes as well as their meager victories.
Schwartz, who frequently worked with lyricist Howard Dietz, scored At Home Abroad, The Band Wagon, and The Little Show, to name just a few of his hits from the '20s and '30s. Fields' lyrics can be found in Sugar Babies and Sweet Charity, as well as Redhead, a 1959 musical detective story and the show that first featured Bob Fosse's choreography. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was their only collaboration, and perhaps "He Had Refinement" -- the song in which Cissy meets up with her first Harry and reflects on what she thinks are his virtues -- is the only one that bears any resemblance to the jazzy numbers and smart lyrics the two had worked on up to this point.
That's not to undersell the music in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. With "I'll Buy You a Star," the song that Johnny Nolan sings to his wife and, later, his daughter, the show has one of the most trenchant, treacle-free ballads this side of "If Ever I Would Leave You" from Camelot. In Tarallo's fine voice, this Johnny brings to mind the turn-of-the-century Irish tenors who broke hearts as fast as they seized them. Tarallo also gets to sing "I'm Like a New Broom," a song about making a new start that almost allows us to believe that the tragic Johnny has a fighting chance, as well as the sweet "Growing Pains," a little nothing he offers up to daughter Francie.
As a musical force, Katie exists only in the background of Brooklyn, the rare leading lady to have only one song to herself. It's a good thing, then, that the one song is "Make the Man Love Me," a classic with which Adjan proves that musical theater is indeed her forte. The musical backbone of this show, however, is its group numbers, from the rousing "Mine Till Monday," a celebration of Saturday night, to "Love Is the Reason" and the equally up-tempo "Look Who's Dancing," two high-spirited anthems by which characters throw their cares away.
Joseph Guglielmo's choreography ranges from workmanlike, in his movement of large numbers of people around the stage with no particular flair, to ambitious and winning, as when he has Harry run and kick up his heels, a feat that Franzese, who is of considerable girth, accomplishes as the audience gasps. A scene dubbed "Halloween Interlude" features a dream sequence in which Johnny is approached by real and imagined demons, who move toward him in an antiquated '50s-style jazz ballet. This dates the play more than it does the choreographer. Also musty are Paul Favini's costumes, many of them gingham dresses aching for a neighborhood revival of Oklahoma! As for the many ill-fitting wigs -- well, only the deluded Cissy could think they have refinement.
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