City of Angles

I can't tell you how uncomfortable I was watching Brooklyn: The Musical, and how embarrassed. Embarrassed at having to witness this inane, dishonest, derivative piece of work, embarrassed for the actors performing it, and embarrassed for the rest of the audience -- most of which, however, was whooping and cheering and apparently lapping up every ersatz moment.

The set is effective: a street corner framed by crumbling brick walls and scaffolding, a lamppost with a trashcan beneath it, a shopping cart overflowing with junk. A group of street kids -- who have given themselves the coy title City Weeds -- is putting on a show. It concerns the affair between an American, Taylor, and a Parisian nightclub performer, Faith (not a very French name, but it does have a certain resonance, non? Especially if you pair it with other vague but rapturous references and factor in that the raggedy coat of one of the other characters is covered with the word GOD in red). Taylor leaves Faith, who -- unbeknownst to him -- is pregnant. Bitterly grieving, she calls their child Brooklyn, for Taylor's home. Then she kills herself. How? As part of her singing act, Faith -- also known as the Parisian Butterfly -- routinely puts her head in a hangman's noose. Eat your heart out, Edith Piaf. One night, deliberately, she allows the noose to tighten.

Now young Brooklyn sets out to find the city that gave her her name and the father she never knew, becoming a huge singing star in the process. In Brooklyn, she encounters Paradice, a singing vamp who proclaims, "I'm so mean I make medicine sick," and challenges our ingenue to a singing duel. Which, naturally, provides the show's climax. But where's Daddy? Could he be off getting a fix when Brooklyn most needs his support? Any chance he'll stagger on later, full of contrition, for a big finale? Do you think it'll be a heartwarmer, boys and girls?

This show feels like a loose compilation of marketing tricks, trendy sociopolitical references and musical-theater cliches. The love affair takes place in Paris because that's where love affairs happen. While the other characters are as ingratiating as puppies, Paradice mocks and castigates the audience. What else would you expect from a hip, tall black woman? Taylor is drug-addled and traumatized because he saw a buddy blown away in Vietnam (along with Taylor's balls. Yes, really). Every character is sketched in crayon. Every concept that might earn easy recognition or wring a tear is trotted out. Some of the music (by Mark Schoenfeld and Barri McPherson) is pleasant, but it all follows the same Andrew Lloyd Webber-ish formula: Someone stands center stage, exulting about rainbow skies and how "you gotta believe" and "trust the voice inside of you," getting louder and louder and louder until the singer has moved him or herself to tears and the audience is positively howling with joy. Remember when songwriters used artistry to speak to us? Now it's sheer volume that substitutes for phrasing, expressiveness and character. And not even the singer's own volume, but blind noise provided by a mike.

All of the performers -- Eden Espinosa, David Jennings, Ramona Keller, Lee Morgan and Karen Olivo -- have charm, energy and wonderful singing voices. I want to say that each of them could be sensational in the right production and given the right role. But I'm not sure that's true. You can get so used to performing in inauthentic settings, being a salesperson instead of an actor and thinking of your own emotions as product, that there's no going back anymore.

There is one genuinely beautiful sequence in Brooklyn. It occurs when Ramona Keller, as Paradice, sings "Raven." She explores the song's subtleties, allows moments of silence, seems to find the song's emotion deep within herself and soars and swoops with the melody. I wish the evening had ended there.

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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman