Saturday, May 03, 2008

Brooklyn, The Musical

Audience pleasing BROOKLYN, THE MUSICAL

Combine a wonderful score, a terrific cast, creative staging, on-target musical direction and the result is the audience pleasing ‘BROOKLYN, THE MUSICAL,’ a production of the Playhouse Square in collaboration with the Baldwin-Wallace Conservatory of Music.

‘BROOKLYN, THE MUSCIAL,’ with its infectious pop and soul music, has the feel of a combination of ‘RENT,’ ‘HAIR,’ and ‘GODSPELL.’

The less than plausible story concerns a band of five ragtag soulful street-corner singers and storytellers, known as the City Weeds, who relate a sidewalk fairytale about a girl searching for the father she never knew. The quest goes on in spite of her having just one clue. She knows he lives in the city that bears her name, Brooklyn.

The play within the play, is about a Parisian singer who was orphaned when her depressed mother hangs herself over the despair of being abandoned by the man she loved. The girl is sent to a convent where she discovers her vocal talents, becomes a star, performs at Carnegie Hall, sets out in search of her father (who she discovers is a drug-addicted Vietnam War vet), and engages in a competition with a diva at Madison Square Garden. (I told you the story was improbable, but it’s a fairy tale, so we have to give it some latitude.)

With a book, lyrics, and music by Mark Schoenfeld and Barri McPherson, the show opened in October, 2004 in New York, where it ran for 284 performances. A 2006 national tour starred American Idol finalist Diana DeGarmo and Melba Moore.

In a coup for Victoria Bussert, the nationally acclaimed leader of BW’s musical theatre program, the college was granted the rights to put on the show’s first regional production.

The local staging has an advantage over both the New York and touring shows. Playhouse Square’s 14th Street Theatre is an intimate venue. The closeness of the audience to performers allows for an electric current to leap from the stage to the viewers and ignite strong emotional responses.

The PHS/BW production is excellent. This is a perfect script for Bussert, who is a master at staging the quirky, small cast, emotional laden production. Think of her mountings of ‘BAT BOY,’ ‘SONGS FOR A NEW WORLD’ and ‘NINE’ at Cain Park. This is also an excellent script choice for students, especially the quality of students that are in BW’s musical theatre program. The show is populated by characters of the right demographics….young, dynamic and searching.

There were numerous vocal show stoppers. Especially strong were “Once Upon a Time,” “Superlover,” “Raven,” and Love Me Where I Live.”

Since the show is double cast, I can only comment on the student performers I saw. That cast was generally on target.

Stephen DiBlasi who plays the narrator (StreetSinger), captured the stage each time he sang. He also displayed an excellent sense of comic timing. Malika Petty, was perfectly cast as the sassy, up-from-the ghetto, on to stardom, Paradice. This young lady can wail and “cop-attitude” with the best of them.

Though her characterization wavered at times, Cassie Okenka, sang the role of Brooklyn well. Mike Russo, who has a nice singing voice, was quite acceptable as Taylor, the father Brooklyn never knew. Beautiful Cathy Prince displayed a nice singing range and gave fidelity to the role of Faith, Brooklyn’s mother. The pit singers, Jillian Bumpas, Paige Shlosky and Kyle Szen added a special dimension to the show with both their singing and active physical involvement, even when not vocalizing.

Nancy Maier and her band were excellent, from the pre-show jam session to generally underscoring rather than drowning out the singers. This is a difficult task when playing rock songs in such a small space.

Janiece Kelley-Kiteley’s choreography, Jeff Herrmann’s set design which found the entire theatre being painted serving as a palate for graffiti and Charlotte Yetman’s thrift story costumes all enhanced the performance.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: It’s too bad that there are only eight performances of ‘BROOKLYN, THE MUSICAL.’ It is the kind of script and production, that could be successful in an open-ended run at the 14th Street Theatre. It’s the stuff from which cult followings are made.