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LETTERS TO EDITOR
A CurtainUp Berkshire Review
The cluttered building interior and partial cityscape that gives this sung-through, chamber musical its name is a metaphor for lives with wide open emotional spaces in their often too noisy togetherness. Though it won a Richard Rodgers Award for a best new musical and was done at the Roundabout Theater, Brownstone is less well-known than Falsettos, another sung-through musical currently enjoying a production in the Berkshires (our review. Josh Robbins, Peter Larson and Andrew Cadiff, like Falsettos composer William Finn, tend to be relegated to walk in the shadow of Stephen Sondheim with their overlapping solo-duet-ensemble songs and bittersweet humor.
Yet Brownstone, despite a fairly predictable story line and often repetitive score, has charm and sensitivity. The music is pleasingly melodic with straightforward, character-building lyrics. It's not a groundbreaking show, nor does it bring any surprises. You know that blocked writer Howard (James Barry) and his frustrated wife Mary (Susan Schuld) will work out their problems, as will Stuart (Kevin Reed), Joan (Stephanie Girard) and Claudia (Sheila Vasan) but it's nevertheless fun to watch the knots being untied -- especially by this likeable cast.
Kevin Reed is the standout in terms of vocal, acting and movement. His "Pretty City " solo is one of the evening's high point. James Barry, who has distinguished himself as a straight actor in previous Unicorn productions, may not match Reed's musical skills but he more than holds his own. The three female characters are nicely differentiated -- Julie Andrews look-alike Susan Schuld as the wife whose biological clock is ticking furiously; Stephanie Girard's Joan, the glamour girl camouflaging a vulnerable would-be country girl; Sheila Vasan's somewhat ditzy, extroverted Claudia.
Not having seen the show either at its Hudson Guild premiere or when it transferred to the Roundabout, I'm not sure what, if anything, the changes BTF's Kate McGuire commissioned have done to enhance the show's appeal. The most obvious alteration is that the brownstone building is now in a 718 area code in Brooklyn. This may be a concession to the ever zooming rents since 1984 when the show was written, with New Yorkers on the low rung of the career ladder more likely to find affordable digs in the outer boroughs than in Manhattan. But then why has director James Warwick, who otherwise ably oversees this production, allowed Stuart to carry a bag from that only-in-Manhattan supermarket, Fairway?
With Warwick making the choice to go for this elaborate, space chewing set, Isadora Wolfe's choreography is, to put it mildly, limited by the tiny area allotted to her. The real choreography here seems to rely on the constant rush up and down the stairs.
I hope that the Unicorn's first step into the arena of musical theater won't be its last. And that future musicals will take advantage of the two small balconies (I somehow expected the musicians in one of these rather than tucked into that busy set) and bring to such future presentations some of the cutting edge of its dramas. Brownstone, for all the eye-popping appeal of its virtual avalanche of realistic props, might actually have worked just as well with a sparer more abstract set similar to the decidedly off-off-Broadway depiction of closet-sized New York apartment life used in a surprise downtown hit named sic ( review) a few seasons ago. Also, while the able musicians are effectively tucked away behind a scrim, one of the two small balconies often used in past productions, would have been a more comfortable place for them. But I quibble. Brownstone is an enjoyable first of many more Unicorn staged intimate musicals.
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