BWW Review: BKLYN Is A Poignant Look Into The Past, And A Retrospective Look Forward at Spanish Lyric Theatre
Like an ode that harkens back to the great "Alma Mater's" of yesteryear one truth rings out loud above them all, and that is "love and acceptance above all." Love what you have and work with what you got, and make your best in the world no matter what life throws your way. This and more is the centralized theme surrounding the story of the not-much done and surprisingly overlooked busking type musical BKLYN which took center stage at the HCC Ybor Campus Friday night. SLT or more formally known as Spanish Lyric Theatre pulls out all the stops in this Tour de Force which is aptly carried in the hands of five amazing performers and aptly dealt from the hands of his appropriately penned "Story-teller" hands Derek Baxter, and all involved should be commended. Baxter has become a staple in the Tampa Bay Theatre scene with such visionary productions of Jekyll & Hyde, and Disney's The Little Mermaid. He does the same here with the no-nonsense, no-frills but completely captivating production of this musical which can be described as The Field of Dreams of Musical Theatre, where if you build it they will come! Going back to pulling out all the stops, SLT even invited Broadway Star and the Original Brooklyn from the Broadway production Eden Espinosa to opening night. After listening to Eden last night speak about how emotionally moved she was from this performance, I knew SLT had a Golden Ticket with BKLYN.
At the top of the show, the cast of five break the proverbial "fourth wall" and engage with the audience. Sparking conversation about the interesting choices in costumes in which the cast was wearing and watching how they interacted with the crowd and one another gave them an almost human quality. No more were they the revered actors/performers, but becoming more a part of us and why we were all there, which allowed a façade to be broken which opened our hearts to their plight early on. Having the band stationed directly behind the set but still close to the audience made the first couple numbers hard to make out, but as the show continued on the thought of this faded away. For the future in a smaller area such as this, a partition between the audience and the band could erase that issue. The vocals rang pure and clean with their rendition of "Heart Behind These Hands" the harmonies were so distinct and the powerhouse vocals were top notch.
In BKLYN we see a young soldier off to war, leaving behind his newborn child and its mother. With the young soldier off to war, the mother's only way to cope with the loss of her baby's father is by committing suicide. Much like Minstrels in a court processional we see the "StreetSinger" beautifully portrayed by Michael Pruitt. Michael's take on the StreetSinger is much like the Narrator of our story, but his beautiful rendition of this role made the narration not seem as though someone is dictating the story, but rather that he is watching this story unfold before his eyes much like the audience. This provides a human side to him in which makes the story flow with ease and not seem as static. Michael's voice soars in all of his solos as well as the group numbers and "Magic Man" is a supreme treat and Michael should be commended for a beautiful performance.
Our Brooklyn in this sidewalk-fairytale is portrayed by the amazingly talented Katie Michaels. Having been seen in several productions with SLT, Miss Michaels commands the stage with ease and her vocal prowess on "Once Upon a Time" proves she is a veteran of her craft. Audience members have probably seen Katie in performances such as The Marvelous Wonderettes and Man of LaMancha, and Director or "Storyteller" Derek Baxter put it best when he said, "She is a true Chameleon, she takes on a massive role such as this, and makes it her own, and it has been amazing to watch." To take on such a massive role with the Original "Brooklyn" sitting mere feet in front of you would be terrifying for any seasoned performer, and Miss Michaels performed with gusto and moved each and every audience member right along with her. With talent such as what she proved tonight, Katie Michaels is sure to become a household name in Tampa Bay and the surrounding area, and I will be watching her for time to come.
Paradice really commanded the stage during "Superlover" and her vocals soared high enough to blow the roof off the theatre. Janelle Richardson is enigmatic as Paradice, and truly is a force to watch. I could listen to her sing just about anything. When later on in the evening she was asked about how she developed the role and she explained, "I took a little Ursula and mixed in a little Diva and out came Paradice." Much like the other outstanding cast members, she should be commended for a truly jaw-dropping performance that would make the likes of even Queen Latifah and Mary J. Blige blush.
Gabe Flores who is no stranger to the stage both as a Performer and a Director had the daunting task to bring a Broken, Lost Vietnam soldier to the story and make it real and make it believable. When asked how he developed the role, "I mixed a little Roger from RENT and a little Orpheus from Hadestown..." and commanding those very real moments in front of a Retired Vietnam Veteran on opening night was some feat. I will say this, Gabe is a great vocalist, I got the wounded almost Orpheus vibe, but was hoping for just as much Roger to round out his story arch. Going from one extreme to the next is truly proven a daunting task and Gabe should be lauded for his efforts here. In the talkback following the performance Gabe humbly stated, "I'm truly out-matched vocally by all of this talent ..." I will say this, Gabe's portrayal of Taylor Collins was a noble job well done and he should be proud, as I'm sure his Father (Retired Air Force Vietnam) is every day. Lauren Butterfield again no stranger to the stage found herself almost on the outside looking in. She often tends to lend her talents to the Comedic side, and to take on such a dramatic and moving piece such as this was a moving experience to be had by all. She was a true joy to watch as Faith/Karen and her vocal qualities and moment to moment were beautifully represented here and Lauren should be proud.
Opening the second act was a showstopper from Brooklyn when she sang, "I Never Knew His Name." When preparing for the role and the daunting task of tackling the score, Miss Michaels stated, "I took a little personal journey with me when discovering Brooklyn, as like her I never knew my Father, who passed when I was young." Once again Katie set the bar with this performance and she is one to watch. On a clerical note, there was a slight misprint in the program, as the song "Love was a Song" was printed to be before intermission and instead it is staged after the fact. "Love was a Song" again was one where the pain was felt, but I think we were missing the angst behind the number it's a beautiful number, but in points, it felt over sang. A couple of times in Act 2 the lighting had been very dark and it felt like the performers were in the dark in places where we needed to see their faces.
Paradice brought the house down once again with her vocals in "The Raven" it was a beautiful number and showed the amazing power behind Janelle's voice. There was a sequence with Lauren Butterfield's character on top of the Scaffolding and it felt like an ode to the Protest Sequence in RENT with Maureen which made for a nice touch. "Love Me Where I Lived" was a show-stopping number and really displays the talent on stage. All throughout the show, the costumes looked very avant-garde. Dresses made of trash bags, and skirts made from Twister Mats it was almost like being an observer at a Hair Show set to EDM music. "Trashy but Flashy" is the thought that comes to mind. It truly brought home that this really is meant to be a "sidewalk-fairytale." I think Derek Baxter put it best when he stated, "I want to bring this show to the street and not even wait for the lights to turn red, just make the cars stop and watch our show, and then pay us afterward." Guerilla Theatre is beautiful and this show in its essence and in its heart could stand on its own and live in that world. This show is all about experience and what is better than performing the show within its own element. It adds to the story and the texture and would be a beautiful representation of where theatre could be headed.
So for those of us lucky enough to experience a show like BKLYN even if it's once every 20 years, the show remains as relevant today as it was back then. I think Brooklyn herself says it best, "When you change someone's life, you change your own!" I think Tampa Bay and the surrounding communities will be changed by this beautiful story, and even more so the beautiful talent that graces the stage during its two-hour plight. Quoting Wicked, "...because I knew you, I have been changed for good!" If you're lucky enough to have tickets or looking for something to do this weekend take a little trip to BKLYN during its limited engagement with only one more performance Sunday, February 9, 2020, at 2 pm only at the HCC Ybor Campus, the "City Weeds" are waiting for you, and will be happy to show you around! Tickets can be purchased by visiting www.SpanishLyricTheatre.com.
Photo Credit: Spanish Lyric Theatre