Theatre Matters

Contemplations on the dramatic arts from a national perspective

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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 14, 2004

Will "Brooklyn" Be Welcomed?

I saw the workshop production of "Brooklyn: the Musical" (a title that still makes me giggle a little) in Denver last year, and reviewed it for Variety (this is a subscription site, but you can sign up for a free trial). I'm very curious to see how it will be received on Broadway.

I think it's fair to predict that the reviews will be mixed, but I'm curious how the critics will balance their evaluations. I know some work has been done on the show since Denver, but I still expect its pros and cons to be easily identifiable. The question is whether the positives will win over the writers, or whether the obvious flaws will overwhelm any enthusiasm.

The Pros:

1. Jeff Calhoun's direction. Calhoun is a choreographer-cum-director, and he's been finding great ways to energize a production with expressive movement (not dance). His deaf-theatre production of "Big River" was fantastic; signing was used in a way that made it seem people were singing even when they weren't. The production took what is really a mediocre musical and made it something unique and thoroughly enjoyable. (I had the pleasure of seeing his first experiment with this, a deaf-theatre production of "Oliver!", which was also excellent.) With "Brooklyn," there's no signing, but the show never stops moving, as a group of street performers "act out" a play-within-a-play. This set-up gives Calhoun the opportunity to use all sorts of found objects to create new spaces and settings. He really is an exciting director. Expressiveness is the key word -- he's always seeking new uses of physicality to impact the audience emotionally. If this show works, he's why.

2. Tobin Ost's costumes will win the Tony. Full stop. But that nod to an artistically questionable award does not do justice here. I gotta tell you, I can't think of another show where a year later, I still think about the costumes, two gowns in particular: one made of bubble wrap, the other of a garbage bag and "Caution" tape. I consider myself a constrained critic who tries fairly hard not to over-praise, although I've been guilty occasionally. I wasn't when I wrote: "It's the most inventive costume design I've ever seen or hope to see." Other critics will agree.

3. Eden Espinosa's singing and Ramona Keller's acting and singing. They both have booming voices; Keller has the much better role as a love-to-hate semi-villainess. I predict that, as I did in my review, at least one critic, and probably more, will mention "American Idol." The story-telling does come to a standstill for many of the songs, which have rather predictable but effective poppish crescendoes (more in a moment on the score). The singers really do get to command the stage and show off. In Denver, in a much smaller house, there was lots of applause in the middle of songs, and it did feel sometimes like Simon Callow's best-of Idol performances. That's good for the audiences, maybe not quite as good for the critics.

Pro/Con:

The Score. How the critics respond to Mark Schoenfeld and Barri McPherson's score will likely be the determining factor. It's got some catchy tunes, but at least in Denver certain melodic threads get repeated mercilessly. No question, some effective, and affecting, songs, and lots of pop passion, but as a whole I was definitely on-the-fence about the score and I'll be very curious to see other opinions. The best musicals have stories and music that advance one another; here the story is mostly an excuse to the set up the songs (see cons), which aren't narrative but descriptive. They express a characters' feelings, but don't advance the plot. Which brings us to...

Cons:

1. The story. The frame, the idea of street performers acting out a "sidewalk fairy tale," works, thanks to Calhoun. But the tale they tell was very raw in the workshop production, and I hope it has improved. It starts out OK, but gets rather silly and abstract towards the end. Throughout, it always exposes...

2. An unbridled sentimentality. This show will be more popular with audiences than with critics; there's really no question about that. This show is very emotional, which is good, but it's also gooey. Critics who don't get turned off by its thick servings of sauce, or at least don't get theatrical heartburn, will be far more likely to spin everything positively.