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|A CurtainUp Review
Brooklyn, The Musical
A couple of years ago Barri Mc Pherson, a Massachusetts mother and club singer, was in New York for a visit when she spotted Mark Schoenfeld performing on a Brooklyn street corner. Actually, that wasn't the beginning. She had met him and worked with him on a record together more than twenty years earlier but, despite a shared creative spark, they lost track of each other -- Schoenfeld relying on his street performances to get by and McPherson raising a family. McPherson invited Schoenfeld to come back to Massachusetts and live with her family. They began to write some songs together about Schoenfeld's experiences in the mean streets of New York and before long the pair built these street songs or "fairy tales" into a book musical about five street singers putting on a musical-within-a-musical on a grungy corner at the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge. Their idea captured the support of director Jeff Calhoun and a group of producers.
As anyone familiar with the difficulties entailed in getting a new musical produced will agree, for two unknowns to have their names on a Broadway marquee as a new musical's co-book, lyric and song writers certainly makes their chance reunion as much a fairy tale as Cinderella's finding herself at the ball with Prince Charming. The show does have two Cinderellas in heroine Eden Espinosa and villainess Ramona Keller, for both of whom this is a pumpkin coach ride to stardom (Espinosa understudied Idina Menzel in Wicked, Keller was a member of the radio trio in Caroline, Or Change). It also has a good fairy via a Magic Man (a welcome return to the stage for Cleavant Derricks).
But -- and here's the big but -- for this to be a really satisfying fairy tale, the book, music and lyrics would have to fit the standards for a really fresh musical as well as the slipper fit Cinderella's foot. Sad to say, especially since this is the season's first new musical, there's very little genuine fairy dust in Brooklyn, the Musical.
From the done to a fare-thee-well play within the play concept, to the vaguely familiar pop-soul melodies and the at times embarrassingly banal lyrics, derivativeness is the operative word for this fairy tale wrapped inside a slice of modern day Dickensian life. The songs are pleasingly melodic enough and Espinosa and Keller have powerhouse voices. Unfortunately, even the most tender ballad is never allowed to end without an excruciatingly over-amplified crescendo. (Scott Siegel, whose Broadway by the Year evenings at Town Hall have given audiences a refreshing opportunity to hear songs sung by the natural human voice was sitting a few seats away from me and I hope he made a note to ask Espinosa and Keller to try singing "unplugged" at one of his future evenings). The function of the three vocalists listed in the program is to amplify the already high decibel level of the ensemble singing.
To give you the essence of the grunge wrapped, saccharine plot: A little band of have-nots or "City Weeds, " periodically transform their "home" -- a graffiti and garbage strewn street corner at the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge -- into a stage for their play about a Parisian singer named Brooklyn. The girl was named after the place from which her mother Faith's (Karen Olivo) American lover hailed -- a place from which he failed to return as promised, leaving Faith pregnant and so heartbroken that, contrary to her name, she hangs herself. That leaves little orphan Annie -- I mean, Brooklyn, to be raised in a convent. Being daddy's girl, she discovers her musical talent and, faster than you can spread mustard on a Nathan's hot dog, she becomes a famous singer. (This being at least a little bit about Brooklyn, the much loved outer borough, rest assured that a hot dog makes its appearance on Ray Klausen's clever set).
Fast forward again, this time to Brooklyn making a sensational appearance at Carnegie Hall and heading to Brooklyn to search for daddy (Kevin Anderson). She does find him and it turns out that he didn't desert Faith as Lt. Pinkerton did Madame Butterfly but was sent to Vietnam which left him a guilt-riddled, druggie (didn't we see that musicalized a lot more artistically in Movin' Out?--but then this is the first massacre ever re-enacted with a guitar). A local diva named Paradice (Keller) challenges Brooklyn to enter a singing competition at Madison Square Garden with a big prize for the winner -- a prize Brooklyn would donate to the homeless while the ice-hearted Paradice would keep it all close to own ample chest. There's little reason for Brooklyn's win to hinge on daddy's showing up on stage to complete that ever more tiresome unfinished ballad. In fact, the whole Diva Duel doesn't make a helluva lot of sense. However, it does add considerable pep to the show and gives Keller a chance to sashay around in a show-stopping strapless gown concocted from trash bags, crime-scene tape and bubble wrap. What Paradice refers to as her "Salvation Armani" is merely the crème-de-la-crème of costume designer Tobin Ost's amazing use of found materials. If the rest of the show were as inventive as Ost's costumes are, the City Weeds' insistence that happy endings are possible might indeed translate into a happy ending for this show -- as in a long and profitable run. As it is, it's a worthy effort to create a book musical with a small cast that might have had a longer and stronger life expectancy in an Off-Broadway house where the singers could sing with less garish amplification.
As I was waiting for my subway train to take me home, three musicians were concertizing on the platform. I was tempted to throw a buck into their hat but stopped short. What if they were planning to use these donations as seed money for a Subway Fairy Tales musical? Heaven forbid.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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