Theatre Matters

Contemplations on the dramatic arts from a national perspective


Steven Oxman has contributed to such publications as the Los Angeles Times, American Theatre, Stagebill, and, most frequently, Variety, for which he has written over 300 television and theatre reviews.

Thursday, October 28, 2004

Bombs Thrown at "Brooklyn"


You know a show is in for it when a review begins, "Oh dear."

I should have been more blatant in my predictions. I saw it coming, this plethora of painful ponderings on the overwhelming sentimentality of the show "Brooklyn: The Musical."

David Rooney in Variety:

"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."

As predicted, Rooney was not the only critic to mention "American Idol" in discussing the show's tendency toward stop-the-story-and-belt-like-crazy pop songs. This is exacerbated since the show's story leads up to a sing-off at Madison Square Garden between the main character, the sweet, innocent Brooklyn (Eden Espinosa), and her nemesis Paradice (Ramona Keller).

Ben Brantley at The Times calls the show "loud and gooey," then puts it in context. I like his comparison to "Pippin;" I hadn't thought of it, and it's right on target:

"A tale told by street folk of 'family, fame, faith and fate,' as the script has it, 'Brooklyn' is in many ways a throwback to the quaint, simple and whimsy-laden little musicals that first blossomed Off Broadway and then sneaked into the mainstream in the late 1960's and the early 70's. Try to imagine 'Hair' without the dirty parts and with more goopy songs like 'Good Morning Starshine,' or a secular 'Godspell,' with a bittersweet sprinkling of Jacques Brel-esque romance.

"Now throw in a helping of funky disco à la LaBelle and a soupçon of Motown as it was reinterpreted in the 1981 musical 'Dreamgirls.' Filter the whole thing through the throat-stretching, note-holding, eardrum-testing vocal pyrotechnics of 'American Idol,' and you've got 'Brooklyn the Musical.' If the idea of such an amalgamation appeals to you, you're welcome to it. If not, you may find yourself feeling like a cranky commuter in a subway car, trapped with a perky team of harmonizers who say they just want to leave you with a smile on your face."

If it's possible, Eric Grode at is even less kind, expressing a certain embarrassment at having to sit through such an evening. Note again, another "Idol" reference.

"This misbegotten hybrid of Brecht, story theater, Amelie and American Idol fails so dismally on so many levels that the prevailing impulse is to look away from the stage."

Brantley is the only critic to dismiss Tobin Ost's costumes. He felt they were too much like Halloween costumes. Others found at least something of a saving grace in them. Here's Linda Winer in Newsday:

"The costumes, created from garbage by Tobin Ost, are a hoot, especially the diva's gown made of crime-scene tape."

Rooney liked them too:

"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 source of wit, most notably in Paradice's glamazon ensemble of trash bags, crime-scene tape and bubble wrap ('I call this Salvation Armani). "

Howard Kissell in The Daily News is even kind enough to lead with a comment on the costumes, although he gets in his overall negative appraisal in between the set-up for the compliment and the compliment itself.

"Four years have passed since "Cats" closed. For all those who yearn for another musical that takes place on a garbage-strewn set, there's now 'Brooklyn, the Musical.'

"In terms of book and score, both by Mark Schoenfeld and Barri McPherson, 'Brooklyn' is entirely synthetic, its plot a series of showbiz clichés, its music similarly generic.

"But in its use of garbage, 'Brooklyn' takes refuse to new levels, especially in its use of trash in costume design."

In Newsweek, Marc Peyser disses, then sums up what's to like:

"...'Brooklyn' is [not] without its charms. Eden Espinosa (Brooklyn) and Ramona Keller (Paradice) are rafter-shaking singers who, unlike so many belters in the 'Idol' era, know how to heat up a song slowly before letting it boil. They almost make you feel something for their cardboard characters. And their outfits are a hoot."

In case you're counting, that's 2 "hoots" for Ost.

Director Jeff Calhoun doesn't fare so well as the cast or the costumer, which is the one thing I found surprising. Despite being given sporadic credit for energizing the show, the critics mostly note he existed, then ignore him. Perhaps because they can't quite forgive him for shepherding the show in the first place.

There is, though, one exception to all this, a kinder, gentler critic, one who admits that he can't say he really liked the show, but thinks others will. He doesn't even deride its sappiness:

"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.

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.... 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."

Who is this non-judgmental theatre critic? None other than the notoriously negative John Simon in New York Magazine