“TREES: A New Musical”

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“TREES: A New Musical”
Full cast, from the back row from left: Axandre Oge, Preston Grover, Karen Harris, Nora Rudmann, Evan Hamilton, Cathy McCoskey; front row from left: Rowan Tarmy, Rose Hutchison, Kaitlyn Gibbens, Trishana Thomas. (Photo/ John McCoskey )
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By Katie Clifford

In “TREES: A New Musical,” local composer Neal Learner addresses the impact young people can have when they take a stand to protect the environment. 

Though it may share some similarities with Learner’s hometown of Alexandria – the story takes place in a town called “Alexburg” – where there are a lot of strong feelings about development, Learner wants it to be clear that the three-act musical is a work of fiction. “TREES” could be about any town or city in America where residential construction is prevalent and green space seems to be harder and harder to come by. 

“This is not an anti-development musical,” Learner said. “It seems like 100 to 150 years ago, city planners knew the value of providing massive green open spaces, but it’s not like that anymore. I really just feel that green space is so important.” 

Learner cares deeply about the impact overdevelopment can have. Through “TREES,” he explores the issues of housing demands, lack of urban green spaces and the effect this has on young people. 

“I’m pretty in tune with the passions of young people,” Learner, who has two daughters in their early 20s, said. “I get the sense that young people are the ones speaking truth to power and leading charges and protests and that’s why it appealed to me to bring in a protagonist like Rachel Spring.” 

The story of “TREES,” artfully directed by Sabrina McAllister, unfolds as we meet Rachel, played by Nora Rudmann, soaking up the trees and wilderness in her favorite forest with her best friend Henry Walden. The talent of these two young voices is immediately apparent and shines through in the opening number, “Trees,” where they are later joined by their fellow students – played by the vibrant ensemble cast – and their supportive biology teacher, Gretta Fields, played by Cathy McCoskey. 

While they sing the bright and lively number “Biology,” Catherine Oh’s thoughtful choreography is evident as the cast moves across the stage pointing out various bird and plant species to their own delight. 

With musical director Josh Cleveland on piano and Gwyn Jones playing woodwinds, the music accompaniment effortlessly pulls the audience straight into Rachel’s world from the very beginning of the performance. 

Rachel soon discovers she has been awarded a $1 million grant from the city – with which she plans to turn the woodland area into a park. The audience is quickly introduced to the opposing forces on the “other side of the fence” when the mayor, an instantly captivating Karen Harris, and calculating building developer, Dirk Ramelton, played by Preston Grover, discuss their own plans: a large residential complex they hope will bring in revenue to the city. 

Conflict ensues when Rachel and Henry – with the help of Ms. Fields – stand up to the powers that be to fight for their park in sensational numbers, including “We Oppose” and “Ain’t My Fault.” The whole confrontation is covered throughout by local news reporter, Brent Barker, played by the engaging Axandre Oge. The clash eventually leads Rachel to camp out in a tree in protest against the development. 

On his phone, Henry films Rachel’s resilience and fearlessness after living in the tree for several days. He then shares it through social media and the video goes viral – inspiring young people from all over the world to stand up to help save their local environments from deforestation and overdevelopment. 

It certainly doesn’t hurt the performance that two of the lead characters are actual high school students. Rudmann, who balanced writing college application letters and AP courses with rehearsals, said in an email she really resonated with her character. 

“In today’s world, it’s hard not to recognize the danger our environment is in, especially since access to the internet has made it even easier for people my age to stay informed and involved in current events,” Rudmann wrote. “I love activism and am constantly inspired by how diligently both my peers and students all around the world are working to make the world a better place.” 

Evan Hamilton, who plays Nora’s best friend, Henry, also felt a deeply personal connection to his role. 

“Since this was a new show, and I had the opportunity to be the first person to play Henry Waldon, I was able to mold the character to fit me and not vice versa,” Hamilton said in an email. “Environmental activism is not something I have personally been involved with, but my father is an environmental lawyer for the Army, so it’s a topic I hear a lot about, and feel very strongly about.” 

“TREES: A New Musical” is a wonderfully entertaining production with a powerful message: We could all benefit from listening to the voices of young people. And it makes it all that much easier to listen to when the message is sung in a catchy melody by a superb cast of performers. 

The world premiere of “TREES: A New Musical” was performed over three showings at the Bethesda Little Theatre on October 27 and 28. 

In “TREES: A New Musical,” local composer Neal Learner addresses the impact young people can have when they take a stand to protect the environment. 

Though it may share some similarities with Learner’s hometown of Alexandria – the story takes place in a town called “Alexburg” – where there are a lot of strong feelings about development, Learner wants it to be clear that the three-act musical is a work of fiction. “TREES” could be about any town or city in America where residential construction is prevalent and green space seems to be harder and harder to come by. 

“This is not an anti-development musical,” Learner said. “It seems like 100 to 150 years ago, city planners knew the value of providing massive green open spaces, but it’s not like that anymore. I really just feel that green space is so important.” 

Learner cares deeply about the impact overdevelopment can have. Through “TREES,” he explores the issues of housing demands, lack of urban green spaces and the effect this has on young people. 

“I’m pretty in tune with the passions of young people,” Learner, who has two daughters in their early 20s, said. “I get the sense that young people are the ones speaking truth to power and leading charges and protests and that’s why it appealed to me to bring in a protagonist like Rachel Spring.” 

The story of “TREES,” artfully directed by Sabrina McAllister, unfolds as we meet Rachel, played by Nora Rudmann, soaking up the trees and wilderness in her favorite forest with her best friend Henry Walden. The talent of these two young voices is immediately apparent and shines through in the opening number, “Trees,” where they are later joined by their fellow students – played by the vibrant ensemble cast – and their supportive biology teacher, Gretta Fields, played by Cathy McCoskey. 

While they sing the bright and lively number “Biology,” Catherine Oh’s thoughtful choreography is evident as the cast moves across the stage pointing out various bird and plant species to their own delight. 

With musical director Josh Cleveland on piano and Gwyn Jones playing woodwinds, the music accompaniment effortlessly pulls the audience straight into Rachel’s world from the very beginning of the performance. 

Rachel soon discovers she has been awarded a $1 million grant from the city – with which she plans to turn the woodland area into a park. The audience is quickly introduced to the opposing forces on the “other side of the fence” when the mayor, an instantly captivating Karen Harris, and calculating building developer, Dirk Ramelton, played by Preston Grover, discuss their own plans: a large residential complex they hope will bring in revenue to the city. 

Conflict ensues when Rachel and Henry – with the help of Ms. Fields – stand up to the powers that be to fight for their park in sensational numbers, including “We Oppose” and “Ain’t My Fault.” The whole confrontation is covered throughout by local news reporter, Brent Barker, played by the engaging Axandre Oge. The clash eventually leads Rachel to camp out in a tree in protest against the development. 

On his phone, Henry films Rachel’s resilience and fearlessness after living in the tree for several days. He then shares it through social media and the video goes viral – inspiring young people from all over the world to stand up to help save their local environments from deforestation and overdevelopment. 

It certainly doesn’t hurt the performance that two of the lead characters are actual high school students. Rudmann, who balanced writing college application letters and AP courses with rehearsals, said in an email she really resonated with her character. 

“In today’s world, it’s hard not to recognize the danger our environment is in, especially since access to the internet has made it even easier for people my age to stay informed and involved in current events,” Rudmann wrote. “I love activism and am constantly inspired by how diligently both my peers and students all around the world are working to make the world a better place.” 

Evan Hamilton, who plays Nora’s best friend, Henry, also felt a deeply personal connection to his role. 

“Since this was a new show, and I had the opportunity to be the first person to play Henry Waldon, I was able to mold the character to fit me and not vice versa,” Hamilton said in an email. “Environmental activism is not something I have personally been involved with, but my father is an environmental lawyer for the Army, so it’s a topic I hear a lot about, and feel very strongly about.” 

“TREES: A New Musical” is a wonderfully entertaining production with a powerful message: We could all benefit from listening to the voices of young people. And it makes it all that much easier to listen to when the message is sung in a catchy melody by a superb cast of performers. 

The world premiere of “TREES: A New Musical” was performed over three showings at the Bethesda Little Theatre on October 27 and 28. 

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