Kerry O'Malley and Deven Mayin A Tree Grows in Brooklyn(Photo © Diane Sobolewski)
Kerry O'Malley and Deven May
in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
(Photo © Diane Sobolewski)
When an outfit such as the Goodspeed Opera House announces a "revisal" of an old musical, my first instinct is to run in the other direction. It's a fair bet that the score will be tampered with, old hit songs dragged into the show whether they fit or not, roles associated with legends will be assigned to competent but less distinctive actors, and lush orchestrations will be scaled down to something a few steps above a kazoo. Worst of all, the original book will be "improved" -- which is to say that its messiness, political incorrectness, scene-change crossovers, and archaic jokes will be replaced with something neater and blander, keyed to please a TV-jaded audience. You know the kind of freeze-dried reconstitution I'm talking about -- or did you miss the Broadway revival of Annie Get Your Gun?

So it's a great pleasure to report that Goodspeed, the exquisite little riverfront theater in East Haddam, Connecticut, has done a praiseworthy job in revising A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, the 1951 near-hit by Arthur Schwartz (music), Dorothy Fields (lyrics), Betty Smith and George Abbott (book), based on Smith's enduring novel of growing up poor and gifted in turn-of-the-century Williamsburg. Maybe the authors' estates paid extra-special heed to this one, maybe the planets were aligned strangely over East Haddam -- or maybe it's just that Elinor Renfield, who reshaped the material, is an extraordinarily astute and discerning adapter. The changes in the show are mostly for the better, and what was assumed by many people to be a troubled tuner that yielded a great original cast album has become a touching, warmly nostalgic evening of old-fashioned musical theater.

What hath Renfield wrought? Let's start with what might be called "the Cissy problem." A Tree Grows in Brooklyn earned mixed-to-favorable reviews in 1951 but won unanimous raves for Shirley Booth's performance as Aunt Cissy, a vulgar, lovable simpleton who stole every scene without moving the plot an inch. The musical's through-line deals with the tragic union of Johnny and Katie Nolan and the raising of their bright, sensitive daughter Francie (her little brother in the novel, Neely, doesn't even show up), but Booth's personal magnetism kept distracting audiences from the unhappy Nolans. The people out front wanted more of Cissy and less of Johnny and Katie suffering. Listen to Booth on the cast album and you'll understand why.

As rewritten by Renfield and cannily acted and sung by Sari Wagner, Cissy has been put discreetly in her place. She's still funny and welcome; she still stops the show with "He Had Refinement," her reminiscence of her first husband -- a gent so gentlemanly that "He undressed with all the lights off until we was wed!" (It does give one pause that Cissy is singing about her sex life to her barely teenaged niece!) But the focus is now firmly on the Nolans. Johnny is the Irish charmer: optimistic, impractical, alcoholic, as fully destroyed by the unraveling of his dreams as was Don Quixote. Katie, girlishly naïve when she marries Johnny, becomes a cold, unforgiving realist when she realizes that she has married a weakling -- though she learns to love him again in time for the final curtain. The two vie to form the worldview of Francie, Johnny investing her with the power to dream and Katie snatching romantic nonsense away from her. To accent this compelling duel, the song "Don't be Afraid" -- advice to Francie -- has been taken away from Johnny and reassigned to Katie. It's a masterstroke, in that Francie's mother is by far the likelier of her parents to urge her daughter to "look life in the eye."

Other skillful revisions have been visited on the superb score. A Schwartz-Fields song from the same era as the show -- "I'm Proud of You," from something called The Big Song and Dance -- has been so snugly wedged in as a duet for Johnny and Francie that it feels like it was there all along. "Tuscaloosa," cut prior to Broadway and said to be Fields's favorite number, has been restored for the barbershop quartet that Johnny leads. (His drinking causes the group to lose a job and to turn on him, another point strengthened in Renfield's rewrite.) The "Halloween Ballet," a nightmarish delusion devised essentially because no serious musical in the early '50s was considered complete without a dream ballet, is missing but isn't missed. Among the existing numbers, "That's How It Goes," a laundry-line-philosophy ensemble, is now more pointedly about Katie's alienation from the community as Johnny becomes the neighborhood drunk; and "Love is the Reason," a showpiece for Booth, is now doled out more democratically among Cissy and her girlfriends to become a sung comic argument. One misses Robert Russell Bennett's orchestrations, but Dan DeLange's eight-piece reduction is tasteful and Michael O'Flaherty conducts skillfully.

Remy Zaken and Deven Mayin A Tree Grows in Brooklyn(Photo © Diane Sobolewski)
Remy Zaken and Deven May
in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
(Photo © Diane Sobolewski)
It took me a while to warm to Kerry O'Malley: Her voice is thin in "Make the Man Love Me" and she plays the young, smitten Katie on conventional-ingénue autopilot. But as she ages into a furrowed-browed mom, O'Malley seizes the acting opportunities offered by the role and becomes a most unconventional musical comedy heroine. Remy Zaken is a solid, no-nonsense Francie, playing up the surprising inner resources of one so young without straining believability. Among the hardworking supporting cast and ensemble -- even the chorus people have distinct, consistent personalities -- Adam Heller is especially winning as Cissy's current flame, at one point earning laughs with nothing more than an exasperated sigh.

But Deven May's Johnny takes top honors in this production. Who would have guessed that the titular Bat Boy of a couple of seasons back could break hearts? We knew he had a sweet Irish tenor, but listen to him coarsen his voice, watch him adjust his gait, and note the slight slurring of words as reality closes in on Johnny. Progressing from cock-of-the-walk ladies' man to lying husband (lying more to himself, really, than to Katie) to pitiable object, May fills in the details that this smartly renovated text hasn't time for. Billy Bigelow, Pal Joey, Og the Leprechaun -- one can scarcely wait to see what classic role he'll tackle next.

On James Noone's stage-filling set, Jennifer Paulson Lee's choreography is more efficient than inspired. The grand exception: a joyous "Look Who's Dancing," one of those scene-changing, time-transporting production numbers. Renfield's direction -- or maybe it's her text, or both -- sometimes slips with an unexplained shift of character (why is Cissy, so sympathetic in her first scene, suddenly a mantrap in the next?) or minor miscasting (there must be more to Katie's friend Hildy than Megan Walker delivers). But the main story -- concerning a star-crossed couple with warring philosophies of heedless fancy vs. brutal truth, and the daughter who learns to balance both -- resonates with great poignancy and power. In this expertly refurbished A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, as in the best of Rodgers and Hammerstein, you can weep at the finale and not feel like a duped, sentimental idiot.