Ray Rackham reviews BKLYN the musical by Mark Schoenfeld and Barri McPherson currently streaming online.
BKLYN The Musical
Now Streaming Online
Given how close the country is to reopening of theatre at a mass scale (and the almost daily news of West End reopening dates) its poignant that a streamed production has come along to remind us what an absolute lifeline theatrical streaming has been. Innovative, vibrant, and fearless, Mark Schoenfeld and Barri McPherson’s BKLYN – The Musical invites us to believe in miracles, suggests that love will eventually conquer, and reminds us that anything is possible. Dean Johnson’s uniquely cinematic production goes a long way to proving so, merging the media of theatre, film and concert expertly.
Newtion Matthews’ charismatic Street Singer enters the battered shell of a Warehouse in the Boro, nods to the arriving band (Musical Director Leo Munby, Richie Garrison and Georgina Lloyd-Owen), and is swiftly joined by the very Brooklynite, urbane ensemble (Sejal Keshwala, Emma Kingston, Jamie Muscato and Marisha Wallace) as they collectively tell the sidewalk fairytale of a girl Brooklyn (Kingston), who grows up in a world of tragedy, yet becomes vocal prodigy. Sound familiar? It might be because a (different) production of BKLYN was one of the last fringe productions to be staged before a world of lockdown, social distancing and rules of six sent us away from the proscenium and watching on our screens. This is an entirely different production, with a completely different team behind it, and goes to show how a different interpretation can absolutely revolutionise a piece that had originally landed like a flat tyre on a Greenwich Village side street.
This production of BKLYN has become a fairytale that takes us viscerally from the Manhattan of Radio City and Madison Square Gardens, to Parisian cafes, crack dens, with the horrors of Vietnam never being far from consciousness. As such, BKLYN very much examines the flip side of the American Dream. However, this story of the other side of that well trodden dream isn’t simply pitched at the dark and played as depressing. You’ll struggle to find such heartfelt happiness in disappointments, or a willingness to accept the rocks life throws; which gives BKLYN a very realistic and mature feel; and fills it with a sense of hope. As one character explains, “when you’re in America’s lost and found, you’ve got to believe anything is possible.” That isn’t to say it doesn’t hold a mirror up to the realties of life; Wallace’s Paradice addressing America and asking if it is even aware of the dark underbelly it has created is a powerful social commentary on what we’ve witnessed in the Capitol earlier this year. It’s fascinating and arresting and thrilling in equal measure.
Not everything works. There are some ill judged moments: the reverb on Brooklyn’s dead mother’s vocals, for example, takes us away from a truthful scene and veers toward a Marley’s ghost of yesteryear. And whilst the score is played beautifully, the choice of instrumentation, (all alto-sax and cello) somewhat dates the piece to a New York of William Finn, Carole Bayer Sager or Peter Allen. The show is undoubtedly at its best when it ups the funk, a brilliant duet between Wallace and Kingston competing on who is more “Brooklyn” attests to this exceptionally well. Muscato seems almost underused until he delivers one of the most affecting moments of the evening, “Sometimes” (accompanied by the rest of this incredibly strong cast). It’s a pivotal moment of the piece – and delivers one of the musical’s strongest messages.
Andrew Exeter’s set and lighting design is absolutely beautiful, a mix of warm hues and stark haze illuminate a collection of torn and crumpled sheets of manuscript paper, exposed beams and rusting steel work; encased in a rickety, almost shabby chic series of frames. Exeter centres the piece very much where it should be, and not in the cod-RENT locale it’s earlier incantation at the Greenwich had. This place feels like a living, breathing Brooklyn and is visually stunning. But, the real star of the evening is Sam Diaz’s video editing, which ironically manages to break the fourth wall, even though we have the added obstacle of our television screen. As Kingston reminds us, “on every corner, roses can spring up through the concrete”. It’s nice to see BKLYN start to really bloom.