Lullaby of Brooklyn

Photographs: Corbis (Brooklyn Bridge); Joan Marcus/Courtesy of Brooklyn.

In the pocket musical Brooklyn, five street persons who call themselves the City Weeds act out a “sidewalk fairy tale” for us as a street audience. Taylor, a young singer from Brooklyn in 1969 Paris, falls for Faith, a dancer, and unwittingly impregnates her. Drafted into the Vietnam War, he is prevented by circumstances from returning, and the letters he writes are intercepted. Deeply in love, but feeling forsaken, Faith kills herself. Her daughter, whom she named Brooklyn, now grown and a singer, armed with an unfinished lullaby written by her father, goes to Brooklyn in search of her dad. Faith, turned angel, encourages her. Brooklyn falls afoul of Paradice (so named because she was born with a pair of dice around her neck), an aging, orphaned, cunningly ruthless street singer, with whom she is enticed into a contest at Madison Square Garden. Meanwhile, she has found her father, whom Vietnam has turned into an addict and alcoholic, yet who reluctantly promises to appear with her to sing the finished lullaby, and so help win the contest. Acting as narrator and connecting the episodes is the Streetsinger, a kind of fairy godfather to Brooklyn. But enough of plot summary.

Mark Schoenfeld, a Brooklyn street musician and father of two, with a motley life and career, and Barri McPherson, a cabaret singer and mother of two, with a more sedate New England life, were thrown together by a set of curious circumstances in a real-life story with marked parallels to that of Brooklyn, for which they wrote the book, lyrics, and music. The much-reprised songs are strictly pop with rather generic lyrics, replete with repetition but rousing in their way, as idiomatic as the police sirens and subway trains heard in the background, and as heartening as the clink of eleemosynary coins dropping into the characters’ open violin case. The often sentimental dialogue is not without acrid wit.

The true fascination, though, is in the production. Ray Klausen’s set, the façade of a derelict building and the area under the Brooklyn Bridge, also sports all kinds of ingenious, quasi-improvised transient addenda with pungent ghetto charm (e.g., a fake window with fake snow falling behind it). Tobin Ost’s costumes, made of artfully transubstantiated junk (real or simulated), are endlessly resourceful and winning. Tirelessly inventive, too, is Jeff Calhoun’s direction, which spins out breath-catching surprises as easefully as a spider does its web. It skillfully manages to convey the material’s doubleness: the razzmatazz of the story told and the raggediness of the tellers and their props. John McDaniel’s arrangements and orchestrations could not be more various and effective, clothing the songs in a chameleon array of atmospheric colors. Colorful also is the moody lighting of Michael Gilliam.

And then there are the performers: just five, but embodying multitudes. They switch between parts in a twinkling, and alternate savvily between lead singers and backup. Kevin Anderson is an engaging Taylor, Eden Espinosa a gutsy Brooklyn, Ramona Keller a funky Paradice, Cleavant Derricks a charismatic Streetsinger, and Karen Olivo an angelic Faith and faithful angel—not to mention the supporting roles they deftly supply. Thanks to them, the unevenness in the tunes and precariousness in the lyrics are staunchly glossed over.

A banner musical unites its audience; Brooklyn, I think, divides it. Those under 30 should groove on its pop accessibility, those over 60 be mostly left cold. Much will depend on the swing voters between those ages. I myself am left bemused by the show, but would hate to spoil the fun of the amused. The traditional musical has fallen on hard times: It costs more to produce and tends to sell fewer tickets. A few creators of the old form, with properly individual touches, remain: Adam Guettel, Michael John LaChiusa, Jeanine Tesori, Jason Robert Brown, the team of Ahrens and Flaherty, plus one or two others. But radically different sensibilities are taking over the musical.

Brooklyn belongs to a genre characterized by less sophistication, less complex melody and harmony, more demotic language, looser rhyming, in-your-face attitudes, and rampant reiteration. A song in Brooklyn mocks the notion of the truth setting us free, drummed into us “From the time we’re very young,” with that line in triplicate, and the concluding “young” preceded by ten “very”s. If you’re not very young, your choice is cooptation or resistance—having no pride, or getting no satisfaction. But let’s not be too judgmental: The ultimate verdict belongs to history.

  Eden Espinosa, now in the title role of the rags-to-fame tale Brooklyn, was last seen (when she was seen) as Wicked Tony winner Idina Menzel’s understudy. “I definitely learned by her example,” says Espinosa. “She’s just a machine and determined and really, really strong.” Which meant she wasn’t often absent. More recently, the 26-year-old singer has been honing her acting. “I’ve added different colors and textures. Before, I just said the lines and that was it,” says Espinosa, who originated the role in the show’s Denver tryout. So far, she hasn’t really worked out a backstage ritual, just tea and some tunes—“U2, Dave Matthews, stuff like that.” 

At the Plymouth Theater. Opened October 21.

Lullaby of Brooklyn