The Encores series of semi-staged revivals of old musicals has been enlivening the New York theater scene for more than 10 years now. Attending the three shows every season (each of which runs over one weekend) has become a ritual for many musical-lovers of a certain age like myself. Until Encores came along, we had heard about--mostly through original cast albums or familiarity with the ï¿½standardsï¿½ that came from these shows--but never seen many of the Broadway hits of the 20s through the 60s. Thereï¿½s a similar series every year in London called 'Lost Musicals'.
The recent Encores presentation of 'A Tree Grows in Brooklyn', which dates from 1951, with a book by George Abbott and Betty Smith (on whose novel the musical was based), music by Arthur Schwartz and lyrics by Dorothy Fields, is typical of the series. It featured the Encores orchestra under its great musical director Rob Fisher on stage with the action taking place in front and all around. Minimal but appropriate sets were suggested by a backdrop of the Williamsburg Bridge, various seats and picture frames, some hanging laundry and a piano. The costumes, vintage lower middle-class from the turn of the 20th century, were of Broadway quality, as usual. And the choreography was inventiveï¿½as it has to be when using less than half the stage.
Also as usual, the cast (carrying scripts throughout the show) was filled with top-notch Broadway talent and lots of singers and dancers you can expect to see in up-coming Big White Way productions. Jason Danieley, Emily Skinner, Sally Murphy and Nancy Anderson played the leads. The plot was convoluted and somewhat stale but the songs included such gems as ï¿½Make the Man Love Meï¿½ and ï¿½He Had Refinementï¿½. Overall, a thoroughly pleasant way to spend an evening.
None of us who were there will ever forget the night that the Encores version of Chicago premiered. We were simply staggered by its brilliance. It is still running on Broadway and in London. None of the presentations since then have reached that level, but theyï¿½ve all been well done and interesting to see. The last two productions planned for this season are Purlie, a 1961 musical based on a play by the late Ossie Davis, which will run from March 31st through April 3rd, and The Apple Tree, a 1966 musical from the folks who brought you Fiddler on the Roof, which will run from May 12th through 16th.