Eden Espinosa (foreground) and the cast of Brooklyn(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Eden Espinosa (foreground) and the cast of Brooklyn
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
When Bette Midler was first scooting across stages in the '70s as the Divine Miss M, she coined the phrase "trash with flash" to describe her ebullient persona. Now, the gleeful bunch of people associated with the theater-rock musical Brooklyn have taken that phrase to heart.

Rarely if ever has literal trash, or a focus on supposed human trash, boasted so much flash. Rampant are Tobin Ost's eye-popping costumes -- especially the sheath worn by a singer called Paradice, constructed of black refuse bags, duct tape, and police caution strips, with a matching hat! (John Galliano, whom Ost considers an influence, must be eating his heart out somewhere in Paris right now.) Then there's Ray Klausen's set, depicting the underbelly of a Brooklyn Bridge on-ramp where brick arches crumble, chain-link gates swing, and weight-bearing I-beams jut. On one wall there's a graffito announcing "Showtime." Over this wide arena the five industrious cast members carry, hang, drop, stretch, and hook additional pieces to indicate swankier venues like Radio City Music Hall and Madison Square Garden. Michael Gilliam's lighting design suggests an electrical storm in a fuse box, while the Jonathan Deans-Peter Hylenski sound design offers rumbling subway trains.

For performing flash, there are five trumpet-voiced singers who could bring down the walls of Jericho if they were ever rebuilt. In alphabetical order, they're Kevin Anderson, Cleavant Derricks, Eden Espinosa, Ramona Keller, and Karen Olivo. In order of their power to get audiences standing at the end of individual numbers, they're led by Espinosa, here making the kind of Broadway bow that will still be talked about years hence; it's the equivalent of Jennifer Holliday blasting "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going" or Melissa Errico enlivening One Touch of Venus.

In what the script describes as an urban fairy tale, Espinosa plays the title character, a girl who's searching for her father. About him, she only knows that he was born in the borough she's named after. Brooklyn has the dramatic cards stacked in her favor, and librettists-lyricists-composers Mark Schoenfeld and Barri McPherson have done everything they can to further Espinosa's advantages. So has John McDaniel, who is one of the show's producers as well as its music supervisor, arranger, and orchestrator. Espinosa, a thin young woman with sleek black hair and a pale and fragile face, comes through for them all. She's got the same range and control that rocketed Mariah Carey onto the charts -- and even more charisma. In "Once Upon a Time" and "Streetsinger," she sends notes into the air for seeming minutes without losing the sense of the lyrics.

During a show that sometimes feels like a melisma contest -- "anything you can melisma, I can melisma better" -- Ramona Keller comes in a close second. She's favored by the authors as well, since she plays the self-serving diva who's out to undo Brooklyn in the story-within-the-story. Keller shakes the rafters with "Superlover" and "Love Me Where I Live." In a musical purporting to take a hard look at urban neglect and distorted values, she also gets the toughest zinger, "You loved me and you loathed me and you made me rich and that's the American way."

With Espinosa and Keller handed the crowd-rousers and able to milk applause because they're supposedly facing fictional audiences clamoring for more of them, the other three performers are at a disadvantage. Nonetheless, they give their estimable all. Kevin Anderson, whose virile baritone was last uncorked in the London Sunset Boulevard, is persuasive here. So are Karen Olivo, whose best chances come early, and Cleavant Derricks, who plays the mystical narrating character called Streetsinger.

(Clockwise from upper left) Eden Espinosa, Cleavant Derricks,Ramona Keller, Karen Olivo, and Kevin Anderson in Brooklyn(Photo © Joan Marcus)
(Clockwise from upper left) Eden Espinosa, Cleavant Derricks,
Ramona Keller, Karen Olivo, and Kevin Anderson in Brooklyn
(Photo © Joan Marcus)
Flash is often a substitute for substance, and that's the case with Brooklyn. The story that the Streetsinger spins -- and upon which director Jeff Calhoun festoons abundant imaginative notions -- is mawkish. Perhaps it's hawked as a fairy tale to excuse its broad departures from reality. Taylor Collins (Anderson) falls for French dancer Faith (Olivo) in Paris but leaves her. Brooklyn (Espinosa) is born and, after her abandoned mom kills herself during a performance, is handed to the nuns. She discovers a talent for music and becomes a world-class singer but remains unhappy because she hasn't located her dad. At the same time as the jealous, fading songstress Paradice (Keller) challenges her to the singing showdown, Brooklyn finds her Vietnam War veteran father and attempts reconciliation. Bromides about love and people changing abound in the often treacly dialogue that Schoenfeld, himself a street singer, and McPherson have written. Clichés also bloat the lyrics, although the Schoenfeld-McPherson melodies have sufficient power-ballad ballast.

Brooklyn is the sort of synthetic confection that it's unwise to question. For instance, it wouldn't be smart to probe the poor girl's arrival in her namesake borough, where she sings a ditty titled "I Never Knew His Name." Ask why her mother forgot to tell Brooklyn her father's name, or whether mom ever even knew it, and the flimsy plot evaporates. As Fred Ebb has Billy Flynn declare in Chicago, "razzle-dazzle 'em and they'll never catch wise." Brooklyn struts its street-trash stuff with enough razzle-dazzle that audiences may never catch wise to its gooey center.