When I walked into the ’92 Theater on Saturday, April 12 for the final performance of “TREES,” an original musical from the creative minds of writers Gabe Gordon ’15, Zia Grossman-Vendrillo ’15, Jacob Masters ’15, and director Emilie Pass ’15, I knew that it was going to be something special. The set was a near-perfect representation of a camp, with two cabins on either side of the stage, an arch with the word “CAMP” across it, and, of course, many, many trees. Even before the show’s opening number, it was clear that the creative team had spent an immense amount of time working on the production.
As Gordon explained, “TREES” first came to life in a playwriting class three years ago, during his freshman year.
“Right after the end of that class, I was like, ‘Ah, you know, this play is something that I’m really into,’” Gordon said. “‘Totally not at the point where I want to share it yet, but maybe if I keep working at it, maybe one day I’ll share it here. But it’s like the kind of play that could be a musical, and I like musicals.’ So it was a year later…and I learn[ed], after getting to know Jacob [Masters], that he’s just as much (if not more) passionate about musical theater as I am. And Zia [Grossman-Vendrillo], who is an incredibly talented musician and just as passionate about these things—including camp—as I am, and [I] kind of decided, ‘I’m going to share what I have with them and see if this is something they might be interested in being a part of with me.’”
When approached, Grossman-Vendrillo and Masters agreed to collaborate with Gordon on the project, and the trio began meeting regularly to do so.
“We set up, after that point, weekly and biweekly times when I would go to Gabe’s room in WestCo, and just sit with him with his roommate’s acoustic guitar, and just either I would have something I worked on, or he would say, ‘Here’s a melody,’ or, ‘Hey, let’s both just attack—What’s the intro to the song? We don’t really know yet—Or the intro to the play?’ and we’d just do it,” Masters explained. “From then on we’d meet every single week, or twice a week.”
Grossman-Vendrillo noted that their method of production was particularly collaborative.
“A lot of [the creation of the show] was such a group process that it’s hard to discern, like, ‘Oh, Gabe wrote all of these lyrics, and Jacob developed this mood,’ because all of us were there in the room, me being like, ‘Gabe, that’s a dumb word. Pick a new word,’” Grossman-Vendrillo said.
As any member of the audience on Thursday, Friday, or Saturday can attest, the team’s hard work certainly paid off. “TREES” is a musical about an unnamed summer camp. The show features a large ensemble composed of camp archetypes, ranging from the stuck-up rich girl, Natalie Anne, played by the always-fabulous Beanie Feldstein ’15, to the horny, neglectful counselors, Eliza and Randy, played by Lauren Langer ’16 and Matt Hixon ’15, respectively. Though there is not necessarily a lead character in the show, the one around whom the plot arguably circles is The Berry Picker, whose childlike wonder is spectacularly portrayed by Kate Malczewski ’15.
Of all the characters in “TREES,” The Berry Picker most clearly embodies the show’s central theme of isolation. Though many of the other characters sing about feeling like they don’t belong, Malczewski’s character is the only one who is actually ignored and left out by the rest of the ensemble. Because of this, she is the one to whom the eponymous trees decide to speak and upon whom they impart the mission of saving the summer. The Berry Picker is visually distinguished from the rest of the cast by her overall shorts, so while she is ignored by her fellow campers and the camp’s staff, she stands out to the viewers very clearly, making her their easiest window into the world of the show.
Every member of the cast gave an admirable performance. If any of the performers stood out, however, they were Feldstein, Torie White ’16, and Noah Masur ’15. Feldstein’s performance as Natalie Anne was astounding, particularly in “Basic Bitches Wearing Sneakers,” wherein Natalie Anne laments being sent to a camp where she wasn’t surrounded by rich people and which eventually culminates in a rap battle between her and Eliza. White gave an electrifying performance as Jimena, a Spanish-speaking camper who confesses her feelings to Gordon’s character, Arnold, in the sensuous, energetic, and absolutely hilarious “Baila Conmigo.” Lastly, Masur was hysterical as Dick, the camp director who has completely forgotten the magic of camp and is now concerned solely with the “magic” of making a profit.
Overall, I found “TREES” to be an immensely entertaining, well-thought-out show. The production was so strong that, several times throughout the night, I completely forgot I was watching a student production; it felt entirely professional.
Gordon and the rest of the creative team acknowledged that the production would not have been possible without the help of Second Stage and encouraged other students to take advantage of the University’s resources while they can.
“This semester, more than any other semester I’ve been here, there’s the most original theater being put on,” Gordon said. “We’re not the only original musical that’s been done this semester, and that is so cool that students are taking advantage of that. This is the time, if you have any inclination to do these things. Who knows what you’re going to be able to do financially or time-wise in the future. We go to a school where there are financial and spatial resources that are given to us to do these creative things. Make it happen. Don’t worry about if it’s the best thing ever, or if it’s the worst thing ever. Just do it, and have fun doing it.”
In our interview, the creative team joked about one day getting the show on Broadway. Considering the superb quality of the Second Stage production, I sincerely hope that the creative team at least tries to do so. There is certainly magic in “TREES,” and it deserves to be shared with a wider audience.