Musicals are notoriously difficult to get off the ground. Local DC-area composer, Neal Learner, was not deterred. Inspired by the often-passionate conversations centered around urban land-use policies, Learner, an avid proponent of city green space, crafted a topical and intriguing show. It examines not only what happens when urban development runs rampant, but also looks at the power of young voices fighting for the preservation of our planet.
…topical and intriguing…a provocative and thoughtfully crafted production…
The musical begins, where else, in a green space where high school students are learning about plant and animal life as part of a biology class field trip. But this isn’t just any green space nor are these just any students. High school student, Rachel Spring (beautifully portrayed by Nora Rudman), has recently submitted a grant application asking for one million dollars to preserve the current green space and turn it into a proper park. Her grant approved, the students and their teacher are overjoyed at what this means for the future of their beloved forest. As with any good musical, the scheming villain (in this case the developer aptly named Dirk Ramelton in a truly spirited performance by Preston Grover) intervenes. He will stop at nothing to thwart the proposed park plans. With a little help from the city’s mayor (Karen Harris gives the performance of the play), Dirk and company initially seem too formidable a match for the “crunchy kids” and their impassioned protests. Ultimately, also as with any good musical, this one ends exactly as it should.
The minimalist set design and staging really do allow the songs and messaging to come shining through on this one. Though there are moments when the vocals struggle to rise above the music of the pianist and woodwindist (the very talented Josh Cleveland and Gwyn Jones, respectively). The numbers themselves are certainly unique and many instances quite catchy. The song “Biology,” for example, is one that may just get stuck in your head. The amusing tango number, “What Do We Do Tango,” is cleverly choreographed and adds an unexpected dimension to the show while the seemingly Pac-Man inspired “Get Em!” was one of my favorites. Perhaps the only downside to having so many songs inside of a 90-minute musical is that there are a few abrupt transitions that are somewhat difficult to follow. A bit more dialogue bridging the gaps between several of the numbers might have added a little more clarity.
Under Sabrina McAllister’s direction, the story that unfolds is a compelling one. Musicals that make you think about environmental issues are few and far between and, yet, Learner’s show does just that. Add in Lynne and Grant Wagner’s set design combined with Lynne Wagner’s sound and lighting and the result is a provocative and thoughtfully crafted production that with a little more development will likely carve out its own unique theatrical niche and, consequently, have an important impact.
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission.
“Trees” ran October 27-2, 2023 by Bethesda Little Theatre at The Writer’s Center, 4508 Walsh Street, Bethesda, MD 20815. For more information, go online.