Brooklyn The Musical Book, Music, and Lyrics by Mark Schoenfeld and Barri McPherson. Directed by Jeff Calhoun. Music Supervision, Arrangements & Orchestrations by John McDaniel. Set design by Ray Klausen. Costume design by Tobin Ost. Lighting design by Michael Gilliam. Sound design by Jonathan Deans, Peter Hylenski. Associate director Coy Middlebrook. Music direction by James Sampliner. Music coordinator John Miller. Starring Kevin Anderson, Cleavant Derricks, Eden Espinosa, Ramona Keller, Karen Olivo, with Manoel Felciano, Caren Lyn Manuel, Julie Reiber, Horace V. Rogers, Haneefah Wood.
When's the last time you saw junk on a Broadway stage? No, not Dracula The Musical, but real, honest-to-goodness trash that looks as if it could have come from one of the dumpsters next to a Broadway theater? If it's been a while, you now have your chance with Brooklyn, the new musical that just opened at the Plymouth.
Director Jeff Calhoun, set designer Ray Klausen, and costume designer Tobin Ost have spared every expense to create utter verisimilitude for this show about five homeless street performers putting on a musical play at a street corner under the Brooklyn Bridge. And with old mattresses and chain-link fences functioning as scenery and trash bags and duct tape comprising one of the show's more adventurous costumes, does the creative team ever deliver!
You can choose to look beyond the show's singular physical style if you like, but I don't recommend it. Buried beneath the rubbish of the show's outward appearance is just more rubbish, albeit in the guise of a book and score (by Mark Schoenfeld and Barri McPherson) similarly incapable of rising above the esprit debris. When a show makes continual fun of its own concept - the sets and costumes are often used as intentional laugh-getters - how can the material be taken seriously?
However, that seems to be what Schoenfeld and McPherson want from their well-intentioned "sidewalk fairy tale," which stresses kindness towards others, respect for the downtrodden, and belief that life - even just one little part of it - can always be better. In the tale spun by the street performers (named the City Weeds), the unshakable belief in the endless possibilities of life drives a young French orphan girl named Brooklyn (Eden Espinosa) to New York City to find her long-lost father, and hopefully do some other good deeds on the trip.
The problem with Brooklyn is neither this basic story nor its qualifying details, such as Brooklyn being a singer and making a smashing Carnegie Hall debut only to fall afoul of bitter pop princess Paradice (Ramona Keller), or even the relationships she forms with her probable father (Kevin Anderson) or the talented Streetsinger (Cleavant Derricks) she meets. But in trying to appeal to theatregoing's lowest common denominator (apparently young people who couldn't be urged with a cattle prod), Schoenfeld and McPherson savage their own opportunities for success.
The book is one major sticking point - representative insights in the cliché-riddled, platitudinous text include "When you're in America's lost and found, you gotta believe anything is possible," "Fame in the land of the pilgrim's pride ain't no fairy tale," and "This is America, and the winners always win." The story also tiredly relies on a plot device lifted from far better shows like Naughty Marietta and Lady in the Dark: Brooklyn knows the music to an unfinished lullaby that only her true father will be able to complete.
Then there's the score of mostly second-rate '80s-style tunes and lyrics, banal even by the standards of those who swear by the artistic merit of American Idol music. Every song is a pop song, and though they're all arranged, orchestrated, and subjected to solid musical direction by John McDaniel, they're on hand only to provide jolts of energy rather than enhance plot or character. When one of the evening's biggest songs (Paradice's "Raven") can muster up lyrical sentiments no better than "I'll make you love to hate me / But that's still love," what chance do the more middling offerings have?
Of course, to Schoenfeld and McPherson, there are no middling offerings; every song, from the opening "Heart Behind These Hands" to the spiritual-infused "Streetsinger" at evening's end, is intended to be a raise-the-roof showstopper. No show can sustain itself that way for 105 intermissionless minutes; there need to peaks and valleys so that the book and score's highs and lows can have meaning. Brooklyn remains resolutely on one level from start to finish, the monotony not broken but enhanced by the willfully energetic proceedings.
The cast, though, is packed with talent. Eden Espinosa, if alternately abrasive and flavorless in her acting choices, is a vocal powerhouse, scoring (and soaring) with number after number, especially Brooklyn's Carnegie Hall solo "Once Upon a Time" and the "Streetsinger" rave-up. Keller may be saddled with a one-note "bad girl" role, but still brings down the house with "Superlover" and "Raven." Derricks is terrific in both of his nothing roles as Streetsinger and the City Weed narrator, and Kevin Anderson adds a little color to his own very bland role. Only Karen Olivo, who is fine as Brooklyn's mother, doesn't seem quite up to everyone else's stratospheric standards.
But no one can compensate for the vapidity of what they must speak and sing, and their superb singing voices - all predictably over-amplified by sound designers Jonathan Deans and Peter Hylenski - can only take them so far. And who can blame them for all looking at least slightly embarrassed at having to make countless ridiculous, refuse-inspired scene and costume changes, and walk around in outfits the Salvation Army would reject?
This all might have seemed slightly fresher and more vibrant in a smaller Off-Broadway venue, where the no-budget look might have lent the show some off-the-cuff charm. But on Broadway, with a $96.25 top ticket price? Rest assured, though: With Brooklyn you're seeing the very best garbage your theatregoing dollar can buy.