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`Tree' gets a bit too gangly to follow

April 10, 2006|Chris Pasles | Times Staff Writer

The creators of "The Tree," the new opera at the Los Angeles Theatre Center through Sunday, want to teach us some big lessons: We need to preserve our forests, stop urban sprawl and design ideal cities.

Unfortunately, the ambitions of librettist-director Peter Wing Healey and composer Linda Dowdell far exceed their accomplishments. "The Tree" resembles nothing so much as an earnest high school production, full of amateur acting and singing directed toward simplistic ideas expressed in readily forgettable music.

Karolyn Kiisel's ingenious costumes, however, make much of little, and Healey's stage direction uses the small, subterranean Theater 3 space inventively.

The plot, we're told, derives from a Shinto myth. In this two-act version, which runs more than two hours, the female spirit of an oak tree falls in love with a man. She takes on human shape to marry him and dies when the tree is cut down to make way for a new highway leading to an expanded shopping mall.

Healey sets up cardboard villains -- a greedy developer (is there any other kind?), his materialistic wife and a complicit mayor and city council -- and equally cardboard heroes -- an idealistic architect, the developer's tree-sitter son, the son's airhead girlfriend and the spirits of the oak and other trees. All are one-dimensional.

Where music could engage the emotions and deepen a sense of the characters, Dowdell's short tunes, more indebted to music theater than opera, evaporate as soon as they are heard.

The blurry acoustics of the theater don't help. Spoken narration used to introduce and sum up the story as well as link the music numbers can be unclear, as are many of the sung lyrics. The music was played by pianist David O and percussionist Jim Snodgrass. David McGrath was the narrator who sped through the introductory and closing comments.

There are all kinds of clever or snide remarks directed toward scattershot, current targets. Some of the best occur when tree characters try to explain human sexual reproduction, and vice versa. But the overall tone encourages a witless sense of superiority to straw men.

Of the more professional singers, Mathew Edwardsen brought a small, steely tenor and limited acting skills to the role of Frank, the architect hero. Lucia Lynn, who alternates on different days with Khorshed Dastoor in the role of Jessica, the tree spirit, sang with a frail soprano.

Marya Basaraba, who has appeared with the Long Beach Opera, splendidly filled out the comic role of Tolorosa Dellaroyo, the Latin bombshell who accompanies the heroine, even though the stereotyped English mispronunciations required of her deserve some measure of contempt.

Catherine Ireland, who also has sung with the Long Beach Opera, almost managed to make the unflattering role of Frank's ex-wife a real star turn.

Most of the rest of the hard-working cast, which numbers 18 in all, take on double or even triple roles. Two Grecian tunic-clad dancers pose and go through inane choreography by Priscilla Waldorf.

If there's any lesson to be learned here, it might be to limit ambition, to create credible characters with distinct musical personalities before plunging into world-altering aims.


`The Tree'

Where: Los Angeles Theatre Center, 514 S. Spring St., downtown L.A.

When: 8 p.m. Thursday, 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 5 p.m. Sunday

Price: $30

Contact: (323) 226-1230 or

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