According to the media materials surrounding “Brooklyn: The Musical,” the unknown writing/composing team of Mark Schoenfeld and Barri McPherson met in a recording studio in New England, made a connection, and then lost contact. They re-united nine years later in Brooklyn when McPherson recognized a homeless street performer’s voice as Schoenfeld’s. This backstory will need to be an essential part of the publicity surrounding the show’s effort to make it on Broadway, where a September opening is currently being eyed, both because it is the clear inspiration for this “sidewalk fairy tale,” and because it makes the saturated sentimentality of the storytelling an awful lot easier to digest.
This is the anti-“Urinetown”: A world where “when you’ve got nothing/You’ve gotta believe anything is possible”; where “tears can water roses”; where the chorus of street performers enacting the story can ask “Do You Believe in Happy Endings?,” and you know that the question is rhetorical — they’re going to provide one whether you believe in them or not.
It’s a show that’s filled (can you tell?) with some painfully sugary clichés, and yet overcomes most of them with the high notes, both literal and figurative, of its score, the passion of its unheralded performers, the stagecraft of director Jeff Calhoun and, above all, the creative wit of costumer Tobin Ost, the truest breakout star of this production. Sure, it will be for those with a Broadway sweet tooth, and this raw show may be over-reaching by heading straight for the Great White Way. But “Brooklyn” is also, at this stage of its development, pretty easy to root for.
The show begins with five street performers, called City Weeds in the program, singing an anthem to empathy, “Heart Behind These Hands,” and then launching into their story. One spray-paints “Scene I” on a brick wall of set designer Ray Klausen’s romanticized street corner, and the characters begin to step forward.
Taylor (Lee Morgan), an American songwriter in Paris, has fallen in love with a French dancer named (what else?) Faith (Karen Olivo). But then he gets summoned to Vietnam and, for reasons we discover later (not exactly convincing reasons, mind you, but effective enough clichés to make us not despise him), never contacts Faith again.
Unbeknownst to Taylor, Faith is pregnant, and she names her daughter after Taylor’s home, a certain borough named Brooklyn. Faith becomes a celebrated dancer, but is unable to overcome the loss of her true love and kills herself onstage, leaving Brooklyn (Eden Espinosa) to be raised in an orphanage.
From the start, all this is partially narrated by actor David Jennings, who also will play a homeless streetsinger, the providential figure who appears whenever things start getting low. And director/choreographer Calhoun (whose deaf theater “Big River” will arrive on Broadway this summer) demonstrates his flair for energy and movement: the actors move incessantly about the stage, taking found objects and turning them into props. A garbage can, for example, becomes a church organ, a rope around a pulley becomes the Eiffel Tower.
Brooklyn’s only knowledge of her father is the melody he wrote when he and Faith were young and in love, a melody that has sustained her adoration of music. She sets off for America, where she instantly becomes a celebrity sensation, her search for her unidentified papa capturing the hearts of fame-obsessed America. Brooklyn’s instant stardom riles the reigning queen diva, a sassy and cynical star named Paradice.
Ramona Keller (“Smokey Joe’s Café” on Broadway) plays Paradice, and simply takes over the show. Once again, the evil characters are more fun. This is heightened here because, while Espinosa brings a naturally clear, lovely voice to the role of Brooklyn, she can’t infuse much personality into a character who’s goodness personified.
Paradice challenges Brooklyn to a duel, a sing-off at Madison Square Garden with a pot of money the prize. This is narrative at its most contrived, an overused plot device that is the show’s biggest artistic flaw. Constant thoughts of “American Idol” lurk uneasily in the background.
Many of Schoenfeld and McPherson’s often compelling tunes allows the performers to reach a crescendo that cues audience applause. John McDaniel, Rosie O’Donnell’s bandleader and the musical director as well as a producer of the show, makes sure the singers show off to full effect.
Calhoun et al. may need to rethink casting if the show moves to New York. They are certainly a talented lot. But what “Brooklyn” needs more than anything else is a sense of maturity. It would help to have performers who seem like they’ve been through something. Given the theatrical reality, age doesn’t matter, and a couple of seasoned veterans could give some serious heft to a couple of these roles.
Finally, there are Tobin Ost’s costumes (his previous credits include Off Broadway hit “Zanna, Don’t”). From a polka-dot skirt made out of a Twister game, to a glamorous dress made from a trash bag, to a hat made from “Caution” tape, to a scarf of packing bubbles, this is the most inventive costume design I’ve ever seen or ever expect to see.
“Brooklyn” often feels recycled, but there’s no arguing with what Paradice says when she enters in one of her fabulous get-ups: “Trash never looked so good, huh?”