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'Brooklyn' feels like low 'Rent' district.


A musical by Mark Schoenfeld and Barri McPherson

Starring: Eden Espinosa, Kevin Anderson and Cleavant Derricks

Oh dear. The caterwauling vocal calisthenics that are de rigueur among "American Idol" contestants have planted their demon seed on Broadway in "Brooklyn, the Musical," a series of overwrought white-bread gospel ballads strung together in search of a book. While on the surface its goal apparently is to be the next little-musical-that-could after "Avenue Q," the real model here is "Rent." But this terminally precious urban fairy tale is devoid of tangible characters or story and, despite some impressive lung power in its cast, seems a long shot to put down deep roots even with the dearth of new musicals this season.

Set on a slummy street corner under the Brooklyn Bridge, the title borough is no more real here than the East Village of "Rent" has become. (Since that show was written, most of the junkies, hookers and homeless have moved on to other 'hoods.) OK, so "Brooklyn" is a fairy tale, but have these people checked out real estate prices in that area lately?

Unlike the eclectic musical idiom and emotional heart of "Rent," Mark Schoenfeld and Barri McPherson's ratty patchwork of a musical has a pre-programmed, one-note inspirational sound and a stock of cliches worthy of a Hallmark catalog.

Co-writer Schoenfeld is a Brooklyn native who dropped out of society to become a homeless street performer for a time, until he was rediscovered by former acquaintance McPherson. But the bohemian spirit and cultivated rawness of their musical confection feels mummified and its depiction of street life untainted by authentic experience. While the press-night crowd was a-whoopin' and a-hollerin' on cue as the singers hit their high notes, it's hard to imagine many audiences uncynical enough to swallow this sentimental guff.

Non-story within a non story has a hand of street-singers--the weeds that sprout through the pavement, we're told--declaring it's showtime. They assume roles to tell the tale of French orphan Brooklyn (Eden Espinosa), named for the home of her American father, Taylor (Kevin Anderson), who left for the States soon after she was conceived.

A celebrated dancer who never recovered

from Taylor's broken promise to re turn, Brooklyn's mother, Faith (Karen Olivo), hangs herself after a performance, leaving her daughter with only an unfinished lullaby by which to trace her father.

Arriving in America years later as a superstar singer to play Carnegie Hall, Brooklyn ruffles the feathers of reigning diva Paradice (Ramona Keller), who may speak for many in the aud when she says, "Oh Puhleazzzz ... the Lullaby?" Refusing to be upstaged by the French vanilla upstart, Paradice challenges Brooklyn to a vocal duel at Madison Square Garden, with audience members casting their vote just like on "American Idol."

Somehow or other, though the details are unclear, a mountain of prize money is at stake and Brooklyn's victory depends on her missing dad joining her onstage to finish the lullaby. OK?

Meanwhile, Brooklyn has located Taylor with the help of the magical Streetsinger (Cleavant Derricks). Dad is a deeply screwed-up Vietnam vet (of course!), whose heroin habit casts a cloud over his reconciliation with Brooklyn.

But as the author's keep drumming into us with tireless insistence, this is a musical that dares to believe in happy endings. Phew!

Given that there is no character here established as oven remotely two-dimensional--forget three--and there's too little tangible interaction between them, it's difficult to invest in the treacly make-believe scenario, regardless of the way the songs strain for unearned emotional peaks.

Much has been written about the arrival of a new star in Espinosa, who understudied Idina Menzel (whom she appears to be channeling) in "Wicked." She tends to confuse screeching through the rafters with real emotional power, but her confident, forceful voice is a good fit for Schoenfeld and McPhersofts steroid-enhanced anthems. But Espinosa is unable to bring much truth to the cardboard role.

Unsurprisingly, the ruthless bitch-queen is far more engaging than the dreary, virtuous Pollyanna. Mary J. Blige was in early talks to play Paradice and it's easy to see what might have drawn the hip-hop diva to the role. But Keller--one of the radio trio in "Caroline, or Change" is no second-rate substitute.

Sneering, sassy and unapologetically trashy, she brings an adrenaline shot to the shiny every time Paradice takes center stage, despite being forced to shoulder some gratuitous social content through the hardened character's views on drugs, AIDS, xenophobia and guns. Keller's sharp-edged, soulful voice heats up her two numbers: "Superlover," about her sexual prowess, and "Raven," about being the bad girl people love to hate.

Original "Dreamgirls" cast member Derricks is a warm presence with a deep, velvety voice, but he's underused in a cloyingly whimsical role. Olivo remains on the periphery, perhaps out of shame after uttering dialogue like, "Sometimes with our tears we can water roses"; and Anderson has the most thankless task, shooting up while negotiating awkward number "Love Was a Song," which musically is a dog's dinner.

Following his dynamic work on the stirring Deaf West Theater revival of "Big River," director Jeff Calhoun here puts as robust a driving hand as seems possible behind the featherweight material. But the actors have little room to move, getting lost in Ray Klausen's cluttered set of scaffolding, a derelict building and chain-link fence.

Urban refuse is used cleverly in the props department and even more so in the inventive costumes, the high point of the show's design. Tobin Ost's imaginative creations supply the only steady wit, most notably in Paradice's glamazon ensemble of trash bags, crime-scene tape and bubble wrap ("I call this Salvation Armani").



NEW YORK A Producers Four, John McDaniel, Jeff Calhoun, Leiter/Levine & Scott Prisand, Jay & Cindy Gutterman Prods. presentation, in association with Sibling Entertainment, of a musical in one act by Mark Schoonfeld and Barri McPherson. Directed by Jeff Calhoun. Music supervision, arrangements, orchestrations by John McDaniel. Associate director, Coy Middlebrook. Music direction, James Sampliner. Music coordinater, John Miller. Sets, Ray Klausen; costumes, Tobin Ost; lighting, Michael Gilliam; sound, Jonathan Deans, Peter Hylenskl; production stage manager, Kimberly Russell. Reviewed Oct. 16, 2004. Opened Oct. 21. Running time: 1 HOUR, 45 MIN.
City Weed, Taylor          Kevin Anderson
City Weed,
  Streetsinger          Cleavant Derricks
City Weed, Brooklyn         Eden Espinosa
City Weed, Paradice         Ramona Keller
City Weed, Faith              Karen Olivo
  Vocalists: Manoel Feliciano, Caren
Lyn Manuel, Haneefah Wood.

Musical numbers: "Heart Behind These Hands," "Christmas Makes Me Cry," "Not a Sound," "Brooklyn Grew Up," "Creating Once Upon a Time," "Superlover," "Brooklyn in the Blood," "Magic Man," "Love Was a Song," "I Never Knew His Name," "The Truth," "Raven," "Sometimes," "Love Me Where I Live," "Love Fell Like Rain," "Streetsinger," "Heart Behind These Hands" (reprise).
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Author:Rooney, David
Article Type:Theater Review
Date:Oct 25, 2004
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