Not everyone would be compelled to use their own family as the subject of a musical. But for composer Ricky Ian Gordon (The Grapes of Wrath, Orpheus and Euridice), it comes naturally. His own family drama has already been well-documented in Donald Katz’s Home Fires, a book Katz was inspired to write by the tales his running buddy Gordon would regale him with while the two were pounding the pavement in New York. The Gordon family history reads like a narrative of the major struggles of the late 20th century: World War II, the sexual revolution, drugs, AIDS. So it seems ideally suited to Signature Theatre’s American Musical Voices Project, a series of commissions given for new works of musical theater intended to help revitalize the genre.
Technically, Sycamore Trees isn’t an autobiography. But the lone gesture Gordon has made toward disguising his family is changing their names. Sam, his brawny, insensitive, war-scarred father becomes Sydney, a brawny, war-scarred, insensitive patriarch, played superbly by Marc Kudisch. Eve, his mother, is reinvented as Edie (Diane Sutherland), a gorgeous, pneumatic, Jewish Dolly Parton who sings, tells ribald jokes, and remains steadfastly loyal to her prickly husband. Gordon’s three sisters are Myrna (Jessica Molaskey), a brilliant and ferocious writer who turns to heroin; Theresa (Judy Kuhn), a bossy, headstrong middle child who tries endlessly to heal her family with Eastern mysticism; and Ginnie (Farah Alvin), the youngest, who grows up in the shadow of her three siblings. Gordon becomes Andrew (Tony Yazbeck), a young gay writer crippled by anxiety and his father’s rampant masculinity. Andrew, fittingly, is the protagonist and the director of his family’s tale, although his part is often overshadowed by the more robustly drawn characters he introduces.
With such compelling, realistic characters and a fleet of Broadway regulars to portray them, Gordon has an easier ride than most. But Sycamore Trees still feels more like a work in progress than a polished final product. Musical numbers are too long and occasionally mawkish—for example, a second-half solo by Ginnie detailing how she overcame her insecurities by learning to paint watercolors is syrupy in the extreme. The comic elements of the family are brilliant, but they’re cloying set against the over-arching sense of tragedy. It’s as if Gordon can’t decide whether his inspiration is Anton Chekhov or David Sedaris.
Gordon’s family saga is undeniably fascinating, and the portrayals of love, loss, and loyalty (with the exception of an inexplicable portrayal of addiction from Molaskey that looks more like someone whose bones have suddenly turned to Jell-O) are excellent. But the decision to stage the content as a musical is bewildering. The emotions involved would be better suited to a play, where detailed conversations don’t need to be interrupted by jarring bursts of song.
At Signature Theatre until June 13. For tickets ($64 and $69), click here.