Sitting in your seat in the open-air amphitheater at the Porthouse Theater, it’s likely that “Bklyn: The Musical” will sound particularly familiar to you. Just because the series taps into universal truths, resonates with social relevance, or evokes common slice-of-life storylines, doesn’t just mean it doesn’t. It’s just that the work – written by Mark Schoenfeld and Barri McPherson, and first staged in 2003 – is surprisingly unoriginal.
If you’ve read “Oliver Twist”, seen an “Annie” production, or watched the movie “August Rush” then the main story of “Bkyln” about an orphan who reaches adulthood and has been looking for a lost relative ever since. long that one believes to be alive will ring a bell. Its plot revolves around a young Parisian singer who grew up in a convent and who, recalling an unfinished lullaby written by her Brooklyn-born father, crosses the ocean in pursuit of the man she never knew. . The show is based on so many recognizable tropes that every twist is predictable.
If you’ve seen “Dreamgirls” or any of the 19 seasons of “American Idol” then you will surely recognize the frequent R&B-flavored anthems and decibel-high tones played on this stage. High risk / high reward vocal calisthenics is called for so early and so often in this musical that the immense skill and effort it takes is quickly taken for granted.
The story is presented as a highly implausible, often schmaltzy, modern fairy tale told by the troop of homeless street performers who take to the stage to earn loose change. But the infusion of incredibly sweet ballads into the show and the smug portrayal of the central characters – especially the troupe leader who also serves as the show’s narrator and calls himself the “Magic Man” – fail to find the requisite heart. to drive this form of storytelling.
The well-meaning direction of Eric van Baars of Porthouse and the always interesting but constrained choreography – clearly impacted by COVID-19 restrictions – do little to bring out the much-needed magical realism encoded in the script and score. of “Bkyln”. The same can be said for Cynthia R. Stillings’ no-frills lighting design. But it is best embraced in the fictionalized interpretation of urban misery by set designer Ben Needham. It features a self-contained street corner center section with a graffiti covered wall, chain link fence, matching trash cans from which props are pulled, and a working traffic light. Costume designer Suwatana (Pla) Rockland is also inspired but, with COVID-19 regulations prohibiting close-up costume changes, she is limited in what she can add to this production.
So not a great musical or a particularly compelling staging. Fortunately, Baars has assembled a cast of seven members which is remarkable. Watching them play is the reason to see this show.
Miguel Osborne, the dean of the cast, infuses much-needed life, conviction and charm into the narrator of the series. And his velvety, versatile voice – which effortlessly switches from crooning to gospel, from rich baritone to crisp falsetto – makes the most of the material given to him. Although he is a truly remarkable soloist, he is a most welcome addition to the band’s harmonies which are such an important part of this production. Kirstin Henry, a rising senior in Kent State University’s musical theater program, pretty much steals the show with her engaging portrayal of the orphaned lead character, natural stage presence, gorgeous voice, and insane vocal range. She does more than stand up to voice-gifted Moriah Cary, an aspiring sophomore at KSU, who plays the hard-hearted diva named Paradice who challenges Brooklyn to a song contest at Madison Square Garden. The 11th hour vocals are actually disappointing at this point in the musical, considering all the vocal pyrotechnics that has already taken place. And that’s a bit of a letdown given Cary’s limited nerve and stamina on opening night.
The otherwise formidable five-piece orchestra, led by Edward Ridley, Jr., also seemed spent at this point in the show, which was built for two acts but appears on stage in one 90-minute act.
As the dear mother of Brooklyn Faith, a French cabaret dancer, Olivia Billings is wonderful. But as is the case with teammates William A. Porter, Dylan Berkshire and Maia Watts, his best work – delivered with energy, passion, and precision – takes place as part of an ensemble. She doesn’t do anything to distract attention, but it’s hard to take your eyes off her performance nonetheless.
Come to the Porthouse Theater to experience live theater again and do it in a bucolic setting. But stick around for Billings, Porter, Berkshire, Henry, Cary, Osborne and Watts.
Bob Abelman covers professional theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob on Facebook.com/BobAbelman3. It was named Ohio’s Best for Critics / Critics at the 2021 Press Club of Cleveland All Ohio Excellence in Journalism Awards.