While sitting in your seat in Porthouse Theatre’s outdoor amphitheater, it is likely that “Bklyn: The Musical” will seem particularly familiar. It is not because the show is tapping universal truths, resonating with social relevance or conjuring commonly held slice-of-life scenarios, which it doesn’t. It’s just that the work – written by Mark Schoenfeld and Barri McPherson, and first staged in 2003 – is astoundingly unoriginal.
If you’ve read “Oliver Twist,” seen a production of “Annie,” or watched the film “August Rush,” then “Bkyln’s” core story about an orphan coming of age and seeking a long-lost parent believed to be alive will ring a bell. Its plot revolves around a young Parisian singer who was raised in a convent and, recalling an unfinished lullaby written by her Brooklyn-born father and crosses the ocean in pursuit of the man she has never known. The show is grounded in so many recognizable tropes that every twist and turn is predictable.
If you’ve seen “Dreamgirls” or any one of the 19 seasons of “American Idol,” then you’ll certainly recognize the frequent R&B-flavored anthems and the high decibel, note-holding belting being performed on this stage. High risk/high reward vocal calisthenics are called for so early and often in this musical that one quickly takes for granted the immense skill and effort they require.
The story is served up as a highly implausible, frequently schmaltzy, modern-day fairytale as told by the troupe of homeless street performers who amble onto the stage to earn some loose change. But the show’s infusion of staggeringly saccharine ballads and the beatific depiction of the central characters – particularly the troupe’s leader who also serves as the show’s narrator and calls himself the “Magic Man” – fail to find the heart required to drive this form of storytelling.
Porthouse’s Eric van Baars’ well-intended direction and always interesting but con-strained choreography – clearly impacted by COVID-19 restrictions – does little to bring out the sorely needed magical realism encoded into “Bkyln’s” script and score. The same can be said for Cynthia R. Stillings’ no-frills lighting design. But it is better embraced in scenic designer Ben Needham’s romanticized rendition of urban squalor. It features a stand-alone, center stage section of street corner complete with a graffiti-covered wall, chain link fence, assorted trash cans from which props are pulled, and a functional traffic light. Costume designer Suwatana (Pla) Rockland is similarly inspired but, with COVID-19 regulations prohibiting close-quarter costume changes, she is limited in what she can add to this production.
So, not a great musical or particularly compelling staging. Fortunately, Baars has pulled together a seven-member cast that is remarkable. Watching them perform is the reason to see this show.
Miguel Osborne, the senior member of the cast, breathes life, conviction and much needed charm into the show’s narrator. And his velvet and versatile voice – which effortlessly shifts from crooning to gospel, from rich baritone to flawless falsetto – makes the most of the material he’s been handed. Though a truly standout soloist, he is a most welcome addition to the group harmonies that 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 title character, natural stage presence, gorgeous voice and crazy vocal range. She more than holds her own against the vocally gifted Moriah Cary, a rising sophomore at KSU, who plays the hard-hearted diva named Paradice that challenges Brooklyn to a singing competition at Madison Square Garden. The 11th-hour sing-off is actually anticlimactic at this point in the musical, given all the vocal pyrotechnics that have already taken place. And it is a bit disappointing given Cary’s limited sass and stamina on opening night.
The otherwise terrific five-piece orchestra, led by Edward Ridley, Jr., seemed similarly spent at this point in the show, which was built for two acts but appears on stage as a 90-minute one act.
As Brooklyn’s dearly departed mother Faith, a French cabaret dancer, Olivia Billings is wonderful. But as is the case with cast mates William A. Porter, Dylan Berkshire and Maia Watts, her best work – delivered with energy, passion and precision – takes place as an ensemble member. She does nothing to steal focus, but it is nonetheless difficult to take your eyes off her performance.
Come to Porthouse Theatre to once again experience live theater and do so in a bucolic setting. But stay for Billings, Porter, Berkshire, Henry, Cary, Osborne and Watts.
Bob Abelman covers professional theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3. He was named best in Ohio for reviews/criticism in the Press Club of Cleveland’s 2021 All Ohio Excellence in Journalism Awards.