From the moment you step into the graffiti-laced environment and make yourself comfortable among the sofas, lawn chairs, and lounge seats, you are surrounded by the aesthetics of a post-modern fairy tale, a thoroughly atypical experience of musical theatre. Brooklyn the Musical is a show that breaks conventions from start to finish.
The plot includes adult themes, such as heroin addiction and child abandonment, and the characters speak in the language of urban poetry (without graphic language). The music itself turns effortlessly from arias to lullabies. The fourth wall is at times broken, at times shattered, and the unusual narrative style blends seamlessly into always energized performances.
It’s a thrilling ride, though whose ride is never entirely clear. The overarching structure is a melancholic celebration of bohemian dreams with no clear climactic moment. Brooklyn embraces ambiguity, leaving the audience guessing to the very end who exactly is the mysterious Streetsinger, a figure who is at times narrator, at times fairy godparent to the title character, at times the soul of the characters he narrates.
The plot, in essence, is of a young French singer, Brooklyn, who travels to the New York borough she is named after to find the father she never knew. She is armed only with unquenchable hope and the unfinished lullaby her backpacking American father (Taylor Collins) wrote for her mother, Faith. The conflict is primarily an existential one. Yes, one could identify Brooklyn and Paradice as protagonist and antagonist (certainly some of Paradice’s attempts to quash the younger artist’s drive border on the actions of a classic villain). However, even when Paradice challenges the orphaned singer to a showdown at Madison Square Garden, the significance of the competition is subsumed under the more subjective question of whether a father with PTSD will succumb to his vices or give his daughter her happy ending. The show is about who we are, not who wins.
The talented actors could not be better suited for the complex roles. Their singing voices deliver every note in the score with fire, precision, and virtuosity. Their characterizations are so energized and connected to the audience that attending Brooklyn is more like watching good friends tell stories and sing together, than sitting down to watch a musical.
Decarlo Raspberry, as the mysterious Streetsinger, blends all the charms of a great storyteller with moments of real vulnerability. Taylor J. Washington, in her delivery of Paradice’s resentment and jealousy toward the upstart Brooklyn, perfectly balances her charismatic humor and theatrical poise, fully showcasing both her gumption and vulnerability. Jonathan Helwig, as Collins, plays cold and brooding to perfection, and his sensitive but edgy singing voice facilitates both the love he once had, and the burdens of a life that took it away from him. Amanda Leigh Corbett is a perfectly melancholy Faith; her sacrificial aerial dance is truly heartbreaking.
The three City Weeds (Ashley K. Nicholas, Marika Countouris, and Topher Williams) serve their parts beautifully, roles similar to the economical backup singers/ensemble of shows like Little Shop of Horrors or Jersey Boys, playing whatever they need to play whenever they need to play it.
Briana Taylor, in the title role, brings hope even in the midst of anguish. Her ubiquitous smile and reedy delivery (particularly in the powerhouse song “Once Upon a Time”) carry us through her particular journey of self-discovery.
An exciting element of Monumental Theatre Company’s work is that cast and production overlap. Corbett assists Choreographer Patricia “Pep” Targete. Michael Windsor is both director and set designer; Rob Siler is both Lighting and Set Designer. Marika Countouris serves as musical director, conductor, and keyboardist. The production design is minimalist but entirely effective. Metaphorical references decorate the walls in the hieroglyphics of spray can art, proclaiming “truth” and “butterfly,” and drawing attention to upcoming and past musical moments.
Props and costumes (credited to Richard Farella and Tommy Malek, respectively) include a body of cracked hand mirrors and a syringe, and various flannels, leggings, and jackets. Two particular standout costumes appear in the Madison Square Garden scene: a bubble wrap and shredded newspaper dress for Paradice, set alongside a trash bag poodle skirt for Brooklyn.
Siler uses a subdued concert-style of lighting, taking full advantage of the plot without distracting from the poetry of each moment. Ryan Hickey’s sound design is particularly strong. The levels are so perfectly balanced that one cannot tell where the amplification is sourced. Echoes and other subtle effects to set the various stages of the plot (both literal and figurative) are more examples of the simple brilliance of the production design.
Energetic and impassioned directing and choreography are what pull this multilayered experience together and make it thoroughly satisfying theatre even when questions are left unanswered, or conventions are being turned upside down. The pacing is flawless, mostly keeping things driving toward the mini-climaxes and internal struggles, with strategic moments of stillness. The use of direct address encourages engagement without ever becoming excessive.
Countouris and fellow musicians, Matt Brown (keyboard 2), Gary Snead (Bass), Marque Nelson and Sam Carolla (Percussion), Brian Berdan (Reeds), and Austin Stahle (Guitar), ensure that the music is precise, and in perfect balance with the strengths of the singers and the intimate size of the Ainslie Arts Center space.
Truly, Brooklyn the Musical is one of those rare moments where everything comes together to support a groundbreaking musical theatre experience.
Running Time: 1 hour and 35 minutes, with no intermission.