TREES: A New Musical by local composer Neal Learner “explores the conflict that arises when developers view land as a resource to be exploited, and environmentalists view it as a treasure to be protected. Who will prevail?” Young people taking a stand to preserve woodlands threatened by corporate greed — it’s a tale as old as time. Yet I was surprised by how refreshing such familiar material could be when presented with style and creativity — everything felt fresh and new.
The opening number, “Trees,” showcases the gorgeous voices of Nora Rudmann and Evan Hamilton as Rachel Spring and Henry Walden (the character names are environmental nudges). Through their eyes, luscious tones, and playful lyrics by Neal Learner, we get a sense of beautiful meadowland filled with trees complete with a creek, a lake, and rolling hills. Cathy McCoskey as biology teacher Gretta Fields enters with a class of eager nature enthusiasts enjoying the setting, identifying species, and playfully warning each other about the poisoned mushrooms. Soon everyone is dreaming of a new green space that Rachel will be able to develop with a million-dollar grant she just received!
The excitement abates when a no-nonsense land developer and a mayor dreaming of big bucks peruse the landscape with the intention to “Clear Out the Trees” for the multibillion-dollar development that will soon be underway once approved by the city council. Preston Grover’s Dirk Ramelton and Karen Harris as Mayor Pilton are a comedic team skillfully handling Learner’s script with ease in setting up the tension. The voices are stellar and musical interludes are knock-down funny, starting with Rachel and the developer both singing in point-counterpoint about their “Big Plans” having totally opposite intentions.
Thanks to neatly paced direction by Sabrina McAllister, standout musical numbers are almost too many to mention — Dirk’s sinister movements in scheming about the development he’s naming “Rampart Meadows,” the mayor and city council denying their own complicity in demolishing the landscape with a hand-slapping “Ain’t My Fault,” and a truly ingenious “What We Do Tango” with the major players pairing up in crazy duets that speak wonders, beautifully choreographed by Catherine Oh. Rudmann’s Rachel shows her “Resolve” with resolute intensity reflected in her commanding stance and laser-focus when she vows they haven’t heard the last from her, and indeed they haven’t. She is a force to be reckoned with, and it’s a wonderful sight to see.
The set, artfully designed and constructed by Lynne and Grant Wagner, looked simple enough: some cutout trees scattered along the stage with realistic bark design on the bottom and decorative greenery on top. Little do we know, though, the broad stately tree on the left is sturdy enough to conceal a hidden landing for a couple to perch on while making their point. The lighting and sound design by Lynne Wagner is just as creative in casting a colorful kaleidoscopic shimmer on the treetops and spotlighting opposite sides of the stage for the conflicting positions. Music Director Josh Cleveland on piano and Gwyn Jones on woodwinds provided the skillful accompaniment at just the right sound level to clearly hear the voices and understand the lyrics — very important while surprisingly hard to achieve.
The interest and enthusiasm of Bethesda Little Theatre for the topic of environmentalism were evident from the talkback presented on opening night with Neal Learner, composer of TREES, talking with the former vice mayor of Alexandria and others about the complications of needing development for housing, especially affordable housing, not just luxury condos while being cognizant of the environmental impact of all the “progress.” Considering issues of “anti-sprawling” and “smart growth,” a balance is needed, they all agreed. It was refreshing to consider such urgent issues in a theatrical setting.
Bethesda Little Theater is one to watch. I’m still hearing rave reviews about their Soul of Broadway musical review from the summer. The acronym BLT while easy to remember is also a reminder that it’s a little theater with a big heart.
Running Time: 90 Minutes with no intermission.
TREES: A New Musical played Friday, October 27, 2023, and plays again Saturday, October 28, 2023, at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. presented by Bethesda Little Theatre performing at the Bethesda Writer’s Center, 4508 Walsh Street, Bethesda, MD. Purchase tickets ($25 for adults and $22 for students) online. Seating is limited.
TREES: A New Musical
Music, Book, and Lyrics: Neal Learner
Director: Sabrina McAllister
Music Director: Josh Cleveland
Choreographer: Catherine Oh
Set Design and Construction: Lynne and Grant Wagner
Lighting and Sound: Lynn Wagner
Stage Manager: Alicia Braxton
Rachel Spring (Nora Rudmann)
Henry Waldon (Evan Hamilton)
Dick Ramelton (Preston Grover)
Brent Barker (Axandre Oge)
Mayor Pilton (Karen Harris)
Greta Fields (Cathy McCoskey)
Ensemble: Kaitlyn Gibbens, Rose Hutchison, Rowan Tarmy, Trishana Thomas
Josh Cleveland, piano
Gwyn Jones, woodwinds
SEE ALSO: Bethesda Little Theatre to stage world premiere of ‘TREES: A New Musical’ (news story October 2, 2023)