With its only new musical of the fail season, Broadway is giving an affectionate nod to Manhattan's slightly less glamorous but storied neighbor across the East River.
"Brooklyn The Musical," which opened Thursday at the Plymouth Theatre, should charm audiences with a strong collection of original songs and an outstanding cast.
Against a backdrop of barbed wire, smoldering rubble and crumbling tenements, the setting is more reminiscent of war-torn Beirut than Brooklyn. In substance, the show has little to do with New York's most populous borough, aside from its title and a few fleeting references to Junior's cheesecake and Nathan's hot dogs.
Instead, Brooklyn serves merely as a fairy-tale setting for this allegorical tale of a young Frenchwoman who travels to New York in search of stardom and the American father she never knew.
With an innocent disposition and an impressive voice, Eden Espinosa is appealing as the title character, named after the hometown of her long-lost dad (Kevin Anderson).
Brooklyn makes a name for herself as a singer in Paris and then takes New York by storm, running headlong into a clash with the resident celebrity songstress, the city-hardened diva Paradice (as in "pair of dice"), played by a vibrant and talented Ramona Keller.
The rivalry culminates at Madison Square Garden, where the stars stage a knockdown, drag-out sing-off that those "Chicago" opportunists, Roxy and Velma, would be proud of. The high-stakes contest takes a pleasant and unexpected turn when our heroine gets a little help from a friend.
The superlative voices of Espinosa, Keller and Cleavant Derricks, who plays the likable narrator, power a diverse score packed with raw funk, hard rock and sizzling gospel numbers. Mark Schoenfeld and Barri McPherson teamed to write the book, music and lyrics.
Derricks' voice and humor are particularly well-suited to the musical's more churchy compositions, like the uplifting "Heart Behind These Hands," during which he sermonizes comically and rouses the audience as if he were leading a raucous Sunday morning service.
Karen Olivo rounds out the five-person cast in the role of Brooklyn's mother, Faith. Olivo makes the most of her relatively brief moments at center stage.
"Brooklyn" plays out in a sort of urban wonderland created by designer Ray Klausen's dreamlike set and Tobin Ost's futuristic costumes woven from street-junk accessories much in the spirit of "The Wiz" and "Cats." The book isn't quite developed to the point of eliciting much emotional attachment to its characters or reflection on its themes.
But the quality of the music and the skillful, unobtrusive direction of Jeff Calhoun (whose Broadway credits include "The Will Rogers Follies" and revivals of "Annie Get Your Gun," "Big River" and "Grease") are more than enough to make the show entertaining.
Four years have passed since "Cats" closed. For all those who yearn for another musical that takes place on a garbage-strewn set, there's now "Brooklyn, the Musical."
In terms of book and score, both by Mark Schoenfeld and Barri McPherson, "Brooklyn" is entirely synthetic, its plot a series of showbiz cliches, its music similarly generic.
But in its use of garbage, "Brooklyn" takes refuse to new levels, especially in its use of trash in costume design.
The title refers only tangentially to the borough. Brooklyn is the name of a girl fathered by an American hippie musician in Paris in 1969. He skips out on his pregnant French chick, who names her daughter after the father's natal land.
After her mother commits suicide, Brooklyn grows up in an orphanage, becomes a well-known singer and flies to America in search of her father.
Her only clue is that he began writing a lullaby to which only he knows the words. She includes the tune in her shows, hoping her father will hear it and come forward. Eventually, she tracks him down.
For no particularly cogent reason, Brooklyn develops a rivalry with an African-American singer named Paradice.
Near the end of the show - which lasts about an hour and 45 minutes and is performed without an intermission - the two face off at Madison Square Garden, and it is here that the musical really becomes creative. Each of them wears a gown made out of garbage. (The costuming, by Tobin Ost, prompts the evening's one witty line, a reference to "Salvation Armani.")
My vote went to Paradice's outfit, sculpted from contractor bags bound together with silver duct tape, with flounces made from the yellow-and-black tape the police use at crime scenes.
Brooklyn's "gown" is fashioned from plastic shopping bags, its bodice highlighted by an "I Love New York" bag.
Whatever sparks "Brooklyn" generates come from its talented performers. Eden Espinosa has a cool voice and a warm appeal in the blandly written title role.
Ultimately, however, I found myself rooting for Ramona Keiler, her ruthless, unabashedly materialistic rival.
Villains are always more fun.
Still, the most sympathetic character onstage is Cleavant Derricks as a streetwise fairy godfather. Kevin Anderson does as well as one can with the thankless role of Brooklyn's surly father. Karen Olivo plays all the other roles with aplomb.
The score has been imaginatively orchestrated by musical director John McDaniel. Ray Klausen has designed the inventive set, and director Jeff Calhoun has given the show pace.
"Brooklyn" is yet another attempt to woo younger people to Broadway. Perhaps its cliches will be more congenial to an audience accustomed to MTV. For those who think the theater should go a little deeper, its appeal is limited.
When you walk out of a musical humming the costumes, you know that show's in trouble.
For though "Brooklyn the Musical" is a modest little show, it has, as Winston Churchill remarked about something else, an awful lot to be modest about.
Admittedly, the show, which opened last night at the Plymouth Theatre, has its heart in the right place. The correct placement of its other organs is more disputable.
The story is a story within a story - which here becomes a folly surrounded by a falsehood, wrapped up in a bad idea.
The falsehood suggests that the entertainment is provided by a band of homeless street performers, the City Weeds, on its hopeful way to the top.
The folly is simply the unbelievable and uninvolving narrative - here termed "a sidewalk fairy-tale" – that begins when a young French woman meets an American balladeer in Paris, and they conceive a child before the father's drafted and sent to Vietnam.
The mother never hears from him again, but names their daughter Brooklyn in honor of his hometown.
Eventually she commits suicide, but not before passing on to her daughter the words and tune of a half-finished lullaby written by the girl's father.
The orphaned Brooklyn becomes a huge star of the Paris vaudeville, and makes her American debut at Carnegie Hall - by practicing, practicing, practicing on her Unfinished Lullaby. Schubert never had it so easy.
Then Brooklyn, the singer, goes to Brooklyn, the borough, to find her Poppa. And then . . . well, it gets sticky. But no one walks out.
There's no intermission.
So much for falsehood and folly. The bad idea here was trying to combine the mood, look and feel of "Rent" with that of "The Fantasticks" to make a hit.
But "Rent" and "The Fantasticks" had great stories, great music and great lyrics. Here, the book, music and lyrics by Mark Schoenfeld and Barri McPherson are not great - though the music, which uneasily straggles between soul and Andrew Lloyd Webberesque anthem -is better than the banal lyrics.
Apart from Tobin Ost's amusingly adventurous costumes - fashioned from plastic bags, bubble wrap and other trash -there is the valiant and talented cast: Kevin Anderson, a magnetic Cleavant Derricks (all soul and moonshine), Eden Espinosa (the eponymous heroine), Ramona Keller (looking and sounding a little like the late Pearl Bailey), and piquant Karen Olivo.
Valiant performers, parading the cutest costumes, in a soon-to-be-forgotten show.
Now that Martha Stewart is out of circulation for a while -- and with who-knows-what hard times lurking around the comer for the rest of us -- why not take some do-it-yourself tips on reusing your trash from "Brooklyn the Musical," the loud and gooey new show about street singers that opened last night at the Plymouth Theater? The enterprising design team of this aggressively maudlin musical by Mark Schoenfeld and Barry Mcpherson has come up with all sorts of ideas for converting everyday urban detritus into glamorous props and accessories.
Why, with only a few yards of chain-link fence and some old newspapers you can make a giant doilied valentine to signal long-distance love. A battered Con Edison traffic cone makes a nifty megaphone. A swath of bubble wrap becomes a cunning stole for nippy nights out. And don't throw away those empty chips and Cheetos bags. Fashion them instead into a festive Carmen Miranda-style headdress.
Such grit-into-glitter transformations may be the most diverting examples of recycling in "Brooklyn" (which is the name of the show's title character as well as its setting), but they are no by means the only ones. The whole production, directed by Jeff Calhoun (the revivals of "Grease!" and "Big River"), can be seen as a kind of cultural recycling of mostly discarded showbiz forms from several decades ago.
A tale told by street folk of "family, fame, faith and fate," as the script has it, "Brooklyn" is in many ways a throwback to the quaint, simple and whimsy-laden little musicals that first blossomed Off Broadway and then sneaked into the mainstream in the late 1960's and the early 70's. Try to imagine "Hair" without the dirty parts and with more goopy songs like "Good Morning Starshine," or a secular “Godspell," with a bittersweet sprinkling of Jacques Brelesque romance.
Now throw in a helping of funky disco a la LaBelle and a soupqon of Motown as it was reinterpreted in the 1981 musical "Dreamgirls." Filter the whole thing through the throat-stretching, note-holding, eardrum-testing vocal pyrotechnics of "American Idol," and you've got "Brooklyn the Musical." If the idea of such an amalgamation appeals to you, you're welcome to it. If not, you may find yourself feeling like a cranky commuter in a subway car, trapped with a perky team of harmonizers who say they just want to leave you with a smile on your face.
It would of course be much more pleasing for everyone, for theatergoers as well as for the "Brooklyn" team, if it could be reported that this was the refreshing, inspiring work its creators obviously intended it to be. After all, "Brooklyn" is the only new musical scheduled to open on Broadway this fall. And it has genuine street cred in that Mr. Schoenfeld once lived on the streets of New York, where he performed as a musician. A Broadway triumph for "Brooklyn," which received a workshop production in Denver, would indeed be the stuff of urban fairy tales.
But while it repeats the phrase "I believe in miracles," the show has a healthy and realistic skepticism about the possibility of fairy tales coming true. And regrettably, "Brooklyn" feels less like the next "Rent" than a soot-and-sugar revue bound for Vegas, where it might fit comfortably amid the simulated big-city authenticity of the New York-New York Hotel.
"Brooklyn" features a peppy ensemble of five, whose three female members really do bring to mind a set of "American Idol" finalists who have been groomed into studio smoothness. They are all first seen standing against Ray Klausen's picturesquely shabby streetscape by an open guitar case, asking for our time and our spare change, reminding us that behind every pair of empty eyes is a human soul.
Led by a satin-voiced narrator (the ageless Cleavant Derricks, who won a Tony for "Dreamgirls"), the cast proceeds to act out the sad but hopeful story of the title character (Eden Espinosa), the "orphaned" daughter of a French cabaret dancer (Karen Olivo) and an American musician (the talented Kevin Anderson, of "Orpheus Descending" and the London cast of "Sunset Boulevard," whose relatively subtle approach to a song gets lost here).
Born with music in her heart, Brooklyn becomes a singing sensation in Paris and crosses the ocean to New York in pursuit of the father she has never known. Her misty-eyed sincerity knocks 'em dead at Carnegie Hall, threatening the reigning diva of pop, a bodacious egomaniac named Paradice (played by the supercharged Ramona Keller, who is the best reason to see the show).
The plot takes some predictable detours, including a flashback sequence into the jungles of wartime Vietnam, before winding up in a climactic sing-off between Brooklyn and Paradice at Madison Square Garden. The moral of all the heavy vocalizing: "You can change the world by changing someone."
Let me just quote a few other lyrics and lines from "Brooklyn," so theatergoers will know what awaits them: "The truth is but a flame that engulfs the butterfly" "Sometimes with our tears we can water roses"; and "Leave all your fears behind/ And float across the rainbow sky/ To 'once upon a time.'" Brooklyn's signature hit is described as "a song that finds the lost child in all of us."
It can honestly be said that the tone of these words is matched exactly by the music that accompanies them. (Celine Dion, are you listening?) "Brooklyn" mercifully has a sassy component as well as a soggy one. And the show is most bearable when Ms. Keller's Paradice is strutting her stuff and being wicked. Unfortunately, she is also forced to confess that "beneath this suit of armor, I still bleed."
Speaking of armor, Ms. Keller also gets to wear the flashiest costumes (Tobin Ost is the designer), including an evening gown made from garbage bags and a capelet of dirty teddy bears. These ensembles are an eyeful, for sure. But if it's madcap improvised fashion you're after, you can see much the same and save a lot of money if you wait for the Halloween parade in Greenwich Village.
If good intentions guaranteed good theater, "Brooklyn: The Musical" would run forever. If bright, fresh talent and infectious pop-and-soul music could overcome a ludicrous story and cornball lyrics, the show that opened last night at the Plymouth Theatre might not make a mere 105 minutes feel like infinity times forever.
Unlike the fairy tale that these characters are selling, however, the reality of "Brooklyn" defies a happy ending. As a concert, its succession of high- voltage performances might be appealing. As Broadway's only original musical until next year, this won't do.
Five perky homeless people decide to put on a show. The program says they are on a street corner under the Brooklyn Bridge, but the burned-out brick and grimy scaffolds - designed with modesty and some imagination by Ray Klausen - could be Any Slum, USA. The program also insists that the time is the present. But the girl named Brooklyn whose American father abandoned her pregnant French mother in Paris to fight in Vietnam is only 20. Do the math. Or don't bother.
The book, music and lyrics are by newcomers Mark Schoenfeld and Barri McPherson. The story of their collaboration is inspirational. For starters, club-singer McPherson stumbled over her onetime composer friend on the skids as a street performer. Their chance hookup with director Jeff Calhoun, who staged last year's endearing revival of "Big River" with deaf actors, is also heartwarming and stranger than fiction.
"Brooklyn" has clearly taken at least part of its concept from the creators' own unlikely reconnection. Perhaps they should have stuck to the facts. Instead, we have a show within a show that endorses, over and over, the idea that "sometimes with our tears we can water roses."
A street singer frequently sings: "There's a story behind these empty eyes that no one wants to know." We also learn that "life is like a shooting star," that "when you change someone's life, you change your own," and that, yes, "the world's a stage and we are the players." Not surprisingly, Brooklyn insists "I believe in miracles" and "love will conquer all."
The program calls each character "A City Weed" of the kind that grows "between the concrete." Each Weed also takes part in the little rags-to-rags story about Brooklyn, the young woman, who leaves France for Brooklyn, the borough, to find the father, a man named Taylor, who doesn't even know she exists. (She leaves France speaking perfect Brooklynese.) It seems that Taylor composed an unfinished lullaby before he left his Parisian lover, a dancer named Faith (a rare name in French). When he never returned, Faith had the baby, became a big star called the Parisian Butterfly and missed him so much that she killed herself.
Little Brooklyn never blames Mom for leaving her an orphan - perhaps because, as the street singer insists, "War makes orphans of us all."
Practically every song is a screamer; as if any one of them could be the big finale. But the singers are terrific - including Cleavant Derricks as the Street Singer; Kevin Anderson as the father, now a mopey junky; Eden Espinosa as Brooklyn, and Karen Olivo as Faith. There is also a big future- star turn by Ramona Keller, the diva who challenges Brooklyn to a singing competition in Madison Square Garden.
The costumes, created from garbage by Tobin Ost, are a hoot, especially the diva's gown made of crime-scene tape. It is a mistake, however, to have characters spray-paint the number of each scene, and a disaster to let us count the minutes on a real clock on the stage. Characters sing, "When you are in America's lost and found, you have to believe that everything is possible."
Not on Broadway, it's not.