Kuhn, Kudisch, Yazbeck and More Sing as Family in New Musical Sycamore Trees, Opening June 1

By Kenneth Jones
01 Jun 2010

Sycamore Trees stars Diane Sutherland and Marc Kudisch
Sycamore Trees stars Diane Sutherland and Marc Kudisch
Photo by Scott Suchman

Composer Ricky Ian Gordon — known for his opera The Grapes of Wrath and the musicals Dream True and My Life With Albertine — takes a page out of his own troubled family history for Sycamore Trees, a new musical opening June 1 in a starry world premiere at Signature Theatre in Arlington, VA.

Previews began May 18. Performances continue to June 13. Tina Landau, a frequent collaborator of Gordon, directs the production, which features Farah Alvin (Nine, The Look of Love, Pirates!, Kuni-Leml), Marc Kudisch (9 to 5, Thoroughly Modern Millie, Bells Are Ringing), Judy Kuhn (Rags, She Loves Me), Jessica Molaskey (Parade, A Man of No Importance), Matthew Risch (Pal Joey, Legally Blonde), Diane Sutherland (She Loves Me, 1776, Cats) and Tony Yazbeck (Gypsy, A Chorus Line, White Christmas).

Performances play the 276-seat MAX Theatre in Signature's complex. Tony Award winner Bruce Coughlin (The Light in the Piazza) wrote orchestrations. Musical direction is by Fred Lassen (Broadway's South Pacific and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels).

According to Signature, "Sycamore Trees is the moving story of [Gordon's] family's struggles and their reliance on each other through good and bad."



Sycamore Trees has music by Gordon, and book by Gordon and dramaturg Nan Mankin.

Long Island native Gordon said in production notes, "When my father came home from World War II in 1945, my family lived in a crowded tenement in the Bronx, poor and with bed bugs. Then my parents got the idea to move to the suburbs where the dream of life flowering in a clean and spacious environment promised to be the answer. It wasn't. This is the story of a family and what happened to them…and music is its heartbeat and inner life."

Sycamore Trees is the second Signature production in the American Musical Voices Project, sponsored by The Shen Family Foundation. This is the largest single musical theatre commissioning and producing initiative at a U.S. non-profit theatre.

Director Landau explained the project this way in production notes: "In Sycamore Trees, an American family speaks directly to the audience as they tell, and re-live, their stories in the second half of the 20th century. The piece is very intimate, and deeply personal, yet it also has a historical sweep as it places these characters in the tumult of the times — the chaotic '60s, the pressurized '80s, and so on. It's exquisite — in its sense of longing and loss, and the profound ties that bind family together. Above all, the piece has a form which is completely unique — unlike any other show I can think of. It's highly inventive and idiosyncratic in its storytelling — constantly surprising, creating and breaking its own rules. The whole piece feels like a poem — some haunting combination of memory, music and dream."

The creative team includes scenic designer James Schuette, costume designer Kathleen Geldard, lighting designer Scott Zielinski and sound designer Matt Rowe.

Gordon's opera The Grapes of Wrath, written with librettist Michael Korie and commissioned by The Minnesota, Utah and Pittsburgh Operas, premiered Feb. 10, 2007. It was recently performed in a concert version at Carnegie Hall in a sold out one-night-only event with an all-star cast and narrated by Jane Fonda. His Green Sneakers (Recording, Blue Griffin Records) was commissioned by Bravo! Vail Valley Music Festival. His Orpheus and Euridice (Recording, Sh-k-Boom) premiered at Lincoln Center as part of the Great Performers/New Visions Series, and won an OBIE Award. Born in Oceanside, NY, and raised on Long Island, Gordon was in love with poetry and fascinated from an early age by all forms of opera and musical theatre. Consequently, his work blurs the line between musical theatre, opera and art song. He attended Carnegie Mellon University.

His works of musical theatre include My Life with Albertine, written with Richard Nelson for Playwrights Horizons (on CD from PS Classics); Dream True, written with Tina Landau for The Vineyard Theater (on CD from PS Classics); The Tibetan Book of the Dead, written with Jean Claude Van Itallie for Houston Grand Opera; Only Heaven, which uses poems by Langston Hughes, for Encompass Opera (on CD from PS Classics); and Morning Star, with librettist William Hoffman, for the Lyric Opera Of Chicago's Opera Studio.

Gordon's current projects include commissions with librettist Michael Korie from the Minnesota Opera for a work to be based on the novel "The Garden of the Finzi-Continis" and from the Metropolitan Opera for a work about Victor Hugo's daughter, Adele in Nova Scotia. For Virginia Opera and The Virginia Arts Festival he has been commissioned to write Rappahannock County with librettist Mark Stephen Campbell.

Landau's recent directing credits include Tracy Letts' Superior Donuts (Broadway), Tarell McCraney's The Brother Sister Plays (Steppenwolf), In the Red and Brown Water (Public Theater, McCarter), Wig Out! (Vineyard Theater), Chuck Mee's Iphigenia 2.0 Off-Broadway's Signature Theatre Company), Midsummer Night's Dream (McCarter/Paper Mill) and Bells are Ringing (Broadway).

For more information about the composer and his works, visit www.rickyiangordon.com.

For more information about Sycamore Trees, visit www.signature-theatre.org or call (703) 573-SEAT (7328).

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Recipient of the 2009 Regional Theatre Tony Award, Signature Theatre is a non-profit professional theatre company dedicated to producing contemporary musicals and plays, reinventing classic musicals, and developing new work. It is under the leadership of co-founder and artistic director Eric Schaeffer and managing director Maggie Boland.