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BKLYN: The Musical – Lambert Jackson/ Stream Theatre

Reviewer: Maryam Philpott

Book, Music and Lyrics: Mark Schoenfeld and Barri McPherson

Director: Dean Johnson

Brooklyn: The Musical made its European debut at the Greenwich Theatre in 2019 despite premiering in America 15 years earlier – that no one had wanted to produce it on this side of the Atlantic in all that time was telling. Now Lambert Jackson are hoping to restore a bit of confidence in the show with its new digital version for Stream Theatre, rebadged with an edgier title – BKLYN: The Musical – in the hopes of overcoming its syrupy sweetness to find a wider audience.

In 1969 American singer Taylor Collins falls in love with a Parisian waitress but leaves to make his fortune before their daughter Brooklyn is born. When her mother commits suicide, the now orphaned Brooklyn inherits a melody that she hopes will help her to find her father but, arriving in the US as a famous pop star, she encounters a rival diva who refuses to go quietly.

Mark Schoenfeld and Barri McPherson’s 2003 musical feels weighed down with problems that Dean Johnson’s new filmed version just cannot resolve. It’s stylishly done, using a two-tone approach that nods to the production’s interest in fairy tale and fantasy as Johnson visualises the play-within-a-play structure by using frequent cuts between the homeless musicians known as the ‘City Weeds’ who tell this story, and the characters who spring to life with costume, lighting and cinematographic approaches used to demarcate scenes.

We never know why these musicians know or want to share this story, who they are or why Schoenfeld and McPherson chose this approach rather than just dramatising Brooklyn’s story directly. But Johnson accepts the premise, reminding the viewer throughout that the story operates on these two levels. Occasionally Andrew Exeter’s production design is inconsistent, showing Brooklyn wearing the same outfit as the City Weed representing her (which none of the other characters do), confusing the otherwise distinct visual layers.

Set in a distressed or deconstructed warehouse-style room, BKLYN: The Musical is largely staged as a concert supported by Musical Director Leo Munby on the keyboard, saxophonist Richie Garrison and cellist Georgina Lloyd-Owen, that becomes more like a music video with characters singing into standing microphones in the fantasy sections and often addressing the audience directly.

Yet, despite the richness of the visuals and the obvious flair of Johnson’s film, it just cannot overcome the thin and unlikely plot, the reliance on staggering coincidences and a cod psychology that ties Brooklyn’s abandonment to her drug-addicted, PTSD-affected father whose history as a soldier / singer / drifter is never satisfactorily explained. It is overly forgiving of every character’s failings with the simplistic insistence that people are more than they appear to be without every delving deep enough to find out.

Vocally the cast is faultless, led by Emma Kingston who plays all the simple sweetness in Brooklyn’s character while adding a determination that matches her powerful voice. Sejal Keshawal as Faith, Newtion Matthews as the Street Singer and Jamie Muscato as Taylor all sing beautifully but it is Marisha Wallace as Paradice who steals the show as a character with a few sharp edges and enough hints at an equally tragic backstory that the audience wills her to succeed even over the heroine.

Performed by an excellent cast and with a snappier title, Johnson’s 80-minute digital revival of BKLYN: The Musical tries does its best to give the material an extra edge in the filming style but cannot compensate for a paper-thin plot and an overcomplicated structure that offers few character insights.

Runs here until 4 April 2021

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