‘Brooklyn’ Subtext Missing, But Its Exuberance Is Intact

There’s much more to this motley crew than meets the eye in ‘Brooklyn the Musical.’ Courtesy photos

The population of Paris in 1969 was just under 2.3 million, or one person for every street musician. At least that’s the way free spirit and Vietnam vet Taylor Collins saw life as he and zillions of others hazily backpacked across France. His guitar was attached to his body then, and an extemporaneous love song would soon yield a daughter by an impetuous mom.

In a typical guy move, Taylor abandoned his new family with tragic results, fueling the girl’s hunt for dad an ocean away and launching a topsy-turvy reunion that melds art, the spoils of commercialism and war, and the arduousness behind the human experience.

Leigh Scarritt Productions’ Brooklyn the Musical, current entry at MOXIE Theatre’s venue, is the vehicle for the story within a story, which to its great credit isn’t as predictable as it first seems. There’s also enough exuberance to go around for the rest of the run and beyond, as local treasure David McBean sparks a street-theater extravaganza that for all the world looks and feels like a mini-Rent.

If you like a big splash of punk with your production values, then by all means see this finely crafted West Coast premiere, which has director Scarritt’s mien all over it. Those who look beyond the scruff, however, might possibly feel a tad deflated amid an overabundance of sentiment.

It all comes out in the cosmic wash, but not before some questions are left unanswered.

Brooklyn Collins, so named after the New York borough from which her father hails, runs a formidable gauntlet amid her search and her unlikely road to song stardom. Not the least challenge is a test of aesthetic wills at Carnegie Hall featuring aging pop diva Ms. Paradice. While Brooklyn pledges her potential winnings to the homeless, Paradice brashly brushes off “my little french fry” and brays about capitalism and the American way.

It all comes out in the cosmic wash, but not before some questions are left unanswered.

Writers/composers Mark Schoenfeld and Barri McPherson had the right idea in setting the introduction in 1969 France, as Parisian anti-Americanism was endemic amid our war effort — but where’s the upshot? Only the year before, Paris’ students had united with 10 million striking workers in a classic anti-war insurrection — and as the beleaguered Taylor’s part in the war is a thrust of the second act, the show requires a subtextual link to the historical events, especially amid Taylor’s relationship to Faith, Brooklyn’s mom (a graceful Julia Wax-Vanderwiel). It’s absolutely unforthcoming.

Streetsinger (David McBean, left) and Brooklyn Collins (Samantha Tullie) are friends beyond friends.

Priestly sexual abuse, AIDS and urban neglect are some of the relevant topics the script brushes — and while the show’s comportment fuels them, the outcome of the contest does not. I’m not telling who won, but I will suggest that Schoenfeld and McPherson shortchange themselves amid their threadbare subtextual references.

“There’s a story behind these empty eyes / That no one wants to know,” sings the cast in “Heart Behind These Hands.” That’s exactly right — meaning that Brooklyn’s sprawling saga leaves little room for other quandaries the show is begging to introduce.

In lesser hands, such gaps could spell failure or the road that leads to it — but local icon Scarritt has conceived her show warts and all, and she’s come up pretty damn big. Her choice of Samantha Tullie as the unfazed protagonist Brooklyn is tailor-made, with Tullie clearly portraying the character’s motivational difference with that of Paradice (check out her moving “I Never Knew His Name,” which defines the breadth of the understory). Tullie will soon begin her sophomore year at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts — that’s credential enough.

And oh, for McBean. This guy simply doesn’t know how to underthink a role, and so it is here with his Streetsinger, at once chorister, narrator and performer. For the life of me I can’t think whose vocals his remind me of, but it’s somebody really, really good.

Kevane La’Marr Coleman’s Paradice is the most bipolar in the bunch — beneath the swagger and the bling, we get a keen insight into her pain with the song “Raven.” Coleman plays both ends against the middle very, very well. Jordan Cavanaugh’s Taylor is less inspired, but that’s chiefly because Taylor’s not so broadly drawn.

Ms. Paradice (Kevane La’Marr Coleman) has a past that explains it all.

Everybody’s got pipes for days, and the songs connote 18-year-old Henry Pederson’s set as nicely as his design connotes them. The choreography and remaining tech are similarly mindful of one another, as are the young Brooklyns (Madison O’Donovan, Ruby Spencer and Claudia Whitehead). The play’s Greek chorus, herein called the City Weeds (Whitehead, Jonathan Edzant, Ariella Kvashny, Rebecca Myers, Adam Sussman and Celia Tedde) punctuate the action with the same clarity as Chaz Cabrera’s music direction.

Still, there’s something sticky-sweet about the climax that doesn’t quite fuel the bedraggledness around it — if the authors had spent more time on their subtext, it’s a cinch they would have altered the ending into something less treacly. But in her program note, Scarritt says the play is a microcosm of the search for our own identities. There are a ton of shows that ask as much — add this kind of fervor, and that roster shortens considerably.

This review is based on the opening-night performance of July 21. Brooklyn the Musical runs through July 30 at MOXIE Theatre, 6663 El Cajon Blvd. in the College Area. $30; discounts available. 858-598-7620, moxietheatre.com.

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6663 El Cajon Blvd. Suite N San Diego CA 92115 USA Work Phone: 858-598-7620 Website: Moxie Theatre website
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