‘Brooklyn' packs emotional, intellectual wallop


Erik Maasch (from left), Tracy Byrd, Olivia James, Brendan Carter, LaRaisha Burnette and Amy Smith star in ‘Brooklyn: The Musical.' Photo courtesy of City Stage

Published: Wednesday, May 29, 2013 at 2:17 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, May 29, 2013 at 2:17 p.m.

For every "crazy" homeless person that we don't have the time or inclination to deal with, there is a heartbreaking story to tell. That's just reality. "Brooklyn: The Musical," an emotionally and intellectually provocative piece of theater by Mark Schoenfeld and Barri McPherson, starts there. But it quickly delves into the most personal of issues – a child's connection to her father – while also confronting some of the biggest, most pervasive cultural challenges America has to offer.

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What: “Brooklyn: The Musical,” with book, music and lyrics by Mark Schoenfeld and Barri McPherson, presented by City Stage
When: 8 p.m. May 31-June 2 and June 7-9
Where: City Stage, 21 N. Front St., downtown Wilmington
Tickets: $18-$22
Details: 264-2602 or www.CityStageNC.com

A compelling production of "Brooklyn" at City Stage, directed with smartness and sensitivity by Anthony David Lawson, features some outstanding performances in the course of presenting a tale that is at once Brooklyn-centric and universal. There are moments both muddled and overblown along the way, but even so, the show is mesmerizing.

The Streetsinger, played with a winning sense of showmanship by Wilmington theater stalwart Tracy Byrd, sets up the musical's show-within-a show premise: Six performers stage a "street theater" production of a modern-day fairy tale about a French girl who loses her mother and comes to the United States in search of the father she's never known. The Streetsinger compares the performers, and by association the show's characters, to the clusters of weeds that grow in the cracks of the sidewalk. They may not always be pretty, but they're hearty. They're survivors.

The show gets off to a strong start with the soul-flavored "Heart Behind These Hands," which contains one of several memorable melodies in "Brooklyn," before the Streetsinger gets into the nuts and bolts of the story. A young American musician, Taylor (Brendan Carter), goes to France in the early 1970s, where he meets a young woman, Faith (Amy Smith). They make a deep connection, but he departs and she never hears from him again. But not before leaving her a child to raise, a girl Faith names Brooklyn, after the city Taylor comes from.

Brooklyn is played by Olivia James, who sings with strength and beauty and expresses a sweetness and damaged innocence that's sincere without being cloying. Brooklyn becomes a famous singer in America and decides to use her fame to find her father, singing at the end of concerts the effortlessly catchy "unfinished lullaby," written by Taylor and taught to Brooklyn by her mother, in the hopes that her dad will find her and provide the words that only they know.

Conflict comes, ironically, bearing the name of Paradice. Played with sassy gusto by LaRaisha Burnette, Paradice, America's reigning diva, is everything Brooklyn isn't: cynical, calculating, cocky and really funny.

The rest of the story revolves around Brooklyn's quest for her dad and a showdown Paradice orchestrates between her and Brooklyn.

Along the way, the show drops some serious knowledge – "Truth destroys beauty" is one powerful line, as is Paradice's lyric, "I'll make you love to hate me/ But that's still love" – while delivering some magical musical moments. "Christmas Makes Me Cry," which recounts the history between Brooklyn's parents, is deeply emotional, and "Once Upon a Time," sung by James, is just flat-out lovely.

Byrd shepherds the story as the always-positive Streetsinger and provides some musical highlights of his own with a sweet, smooth voice. Burnette is a powerhouse, and even though she can go overboard, as she does on "Raven," in general she's fully in control of a seductive, troubling character who's used to being on top but sees her spot in the limelight crowded out by Brooklyn's blazing talent. Burnette, whose R&B-drenched delivery occasionally recalls Adele, is up to the challenge the character provides. As Paradice plays her Brooklyn bona fides against Brooklyn's French-born talents, she comes to represent all that's crass, mercenary and lowbrow – and, in a guilty pleasure sense, fun – about American culture. She's Snooki, she's reality TV, she's the mean girl who will do any lowdown deed to get ahead.

Vocally, the ensemble sounds great, thanks in no small part to musical director Chiaki Ito and her crack band. Smith has poignant moments as Brooklyn's doomed mother, Faith; Erik Maasch is a fine supporting player in various roles; and Carter, who has his ups and downs in portraying Taylor – his performance can lack focus at times – has some standout singing moments and is generally effective.

The show also has a consistent look – let's call it urban blight – with a graffiti-strewn set design by Troy Rudeseal, who puts the band behind a metal construction fence, a nice touch. Costumes by Isabel Zermani, notably Paradice's dress made of garbage bags and chip wrappers, are eye-catching.

"Brooklyn" doesn't have a traditional, fairy tale happy ending, but it's not a downer, either. It's more complex than that, in a way that's true to life, with all its pain and beauty.

John Staton: 343-2343

Twitter: @Statonator

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