A Catastrophe of Naïveté, Brooklyn Goes Bust on Broadway

There ought to be a law that protects theater ingénues from producers. Brooklyn, the Musical, which will be briefly on Broadway, lists 23 producers, co-producers and associate producers in its Playbill. That’s about twice as many as it took to produce The Producers!

Didn’t at least one of the noble 23 have any doubts? Long experience has taught us that the best of people can grow delusional en route to the Great White Way. But this is a first musical by Mark Shoenfeld and Barri McPherson, and its flaws are so glaring that anyone could have pointed them out. Why wait for me?

My Uncle Louis could have told them, “I’m sorry, this show is not working. The critics are going to crucify it. The public isn’t going to buy it. Save yourselves a bundle and see what its creators can come up with next time. Broadway is too severe a test for them right now and good intentions aren’t enough. Talent needs to be nurtured carefully. Don’t kill it off.”

My Uncle Louis sounds a lot like me. But only because I agree with him. It’s a harsh thing to say, but the creators of Brooklyn, the Musical really should have been saved from themselves. I can’t recall a first-time musical actually making it. ( Rent, for example, came out of the blue, but it wasn’t Jonathan Larson’s debut.) A first musical, like a first play, is more often the beloved work that remains in the artist’s bottom drawer.

The trouble is that exactly the same hopes and dreams make a bad show and a good show. “Thanks to the Lord for all his blessings,” writes Eden Espinosa in her Playbill bio for Brooklyn, the Musical. Ms. Espinosa is making her Broadway debut as an innocent named Brooklyn who’s orphaned in Paris, France, when her father, Taylor Collins, a street entertainer (who was born in Brooklyn), abandons her mother. Taylor, we learn, became a junkie during the Vietnam War, where he massacred villagers and won the Silver Star.

“Thanks to God,” writes Karen Olivo in her Playbill bio, as well as “Dad, Mom, John Brown, Rocky, Ruth, Richard, Penni Tinsley, the MOFOS and Matthew. Nil Magnum Nisi Bonum.” Ms. Olivo (who understudied Mimi in Rent) plays Faith, the mother of Brooklyn, who’s a dancer known as “The Parisienne Butterfly.” Faith hangs herself during one of her performances, leaving Brooklyn in the care of the French Sisters of Charity, where her mother reappears as an angel.

“Brooklyn, I didn’t give you a happy ending,” the angel Faith tells her distraught child. “Trust the voice inside you, Brooklyn. Follow it … to America.”

“I used to think that Mother Teresa was the only angel on earth,” writes Mark Shoenfeld, the co-creator of Brooklyn, the Musical, in his Playbill bio, “but now I know there are others, they just hide their wings.”

“I fear not the darkness, for your ghost walks beside me. I fear not the silence, for your voice speaks inside me,” writes the co-creator, Barri McPherson, in her bio.

What’s going on? There’s more emoting in the Playbill than onstage. Even the producers are in on it. “A mortgage-banking C.E.O. by day, Rick stumbled on Brooklyn with his sister Beth two years ago. His life was changed that night …. ”

Well, Rick, your life is about to be changed again. No offense to anyone, but God, family, Mother Teresa and miraculous life-changing experiences are only appropriate in political campaigns. Showbiz is less a process of divine intervention.

Even the customary excesses of Playbill bios—”For momma!”, “Give thanks to the Lord!”, “Here’s to you, kid”—have been topped by Brooklyn, the Musical. And like the fairy-tale musical itself—which wears its heart on its sleeve and repeatedly states “I believe in miracles”—you might feel badly taking it to task.

But the show amounts to a catastrophe of naïveté. Set on an urban dump in Brooklyn, a five-member troupe of street musicians named the City Weeds are in search of “family, fame, faith and fate.” They tell us the story of Brooklyn, the Parisienne orphan who was “born of music, made of dreams,” and they play all the roles. It’s meant to be whimsically charming, like The Fantastiks, I guess. But the honest naïveté of that long-running musical not only belonged to another Off Broadway age, it was a wonderful little show.

Loud brassiness isn’t innocence. For long, heavily miked stretches, Brooklyn, the Musical could be American Idol with a future Britney Spears. “And soon Faith’s beautiful little girl became a famous young woman,” the storyteller tells us earnestly. “Famous for a song, a song that finds the lost child in all of us. Oh, and now she’s famous where it counts. Where nothing but fame counts … America.”

It’s quite a knowing musical, in its way. A jarring note of cynicism sometimes intervenes, though it might be accidental. Brooklyn becomes an overnight singing sensation who searches for her lost father while touring America. “Always remember, Brooklyn, sometimes with our tears we can water roses,” Faith, her mother, had confided before she hanged herself.

Brooklyn’s dad sang an unfinished lullaby when she was a child, and she was left haunted by the opening bars. She sings them at the close of every performance in the hope that he’ll be there to complete the song. Meanwhile, fate intervenes in the mean shape and form of “a natural born world shaker”—a black diva named Paradice “honed on hustle and raised on riot.”

Paradice (born in Brooklyn “with nothin’ but a pair-of-dice round my neck”) is vulnerable inside. She “still bleeds beneath this suit of armor,” and we learn she misses her daddy, too. But sweet Brooklyn makes her want to throw up just the same, and so she challenges her to a Battle of the Divas at Madison Square Garden.

After a psychodramatic recreation of a massacre in Vietnam, the climactic scene has the girls competing in song for a pot of gold in the boxing ring of Madison Square Garden. If Paradice wins, she’s keeping the dough. If Brooklyn wins, she’s giving it all to the homeless.

Brooklyn in the blood (belts Paradice)

Racing through my veins

Rumbling through my body

Like a subway train.

Life is like a shooting star (Brooklyn sings)

And here is where it’s falling

I feel I’m in my father’s home

And destiny is calling.

Let’s leave it to destiny. Brooklyn, the Musical is directed by Jeff Calhoun (of the recent, well-received Big River). Ramona Keller of Caroline, or Change gives everything she has, and then some, to the role of Paradice. That fine actor and singer, Kevin Anderson, plays the thankless role of the father. Cleavant Derricks, a Tony winner for Michael Bennett’s Dreamgirls, is the outstanding musical performer who plays the show’s storyteller. The costume designs by Tobin Orst are the wittiest statement of the night. A Catastrophe of Naïveté, Brooklyn Goes Bust on Broadway