Michael Mayer and Peter Lerman pen a musical about superheroes and Brooklyn.
If Spider-Man Turn Off the Dark turned you off of superhero-themed musicals forever, Brooklynite (now making its world premiere at the Vineyard Theatre) isn't likely to change your opinion. While this new tuner (score by Peter Lerman, book by Lerman and director Michael Mayer) doesn't take itself nearly as seriously as the epically disastrous Spidey musical, it still feels like it's trying to synthesize two elements that don't really belong together — like pairing white zinfandel and triple-chocolate layer cake — with results that are just as sweet to the point of a stomachache.
The story is inspired by the Brooklyn Superhero Supply Company, a real storefront in Park Slope that serves as a disguise for 826NYC, author Dave Eggers' not-for-profit organization that helps young people improve their writing skills. In writing their book, Lerman and Mayer borrowed characters created by 826NYC volunteer, the novelist Michael Chabon, and his wife, author Ayelet Waldman. Instead of a heartwarming musical about Brooklyn kids writing their way to success, however, we get a superhero tale as uninspired as anything pumped out by Hollywood in the last decade.
Park Slope hardware store clerk Trey Swieskowski (Matt Doyle) dreams of joining the Legion of Victory, a league of superheroes charged with keeping Brooklyn safe. Sadly, there's nothing super about Trey. That is, until he discovers the secret formula to "Brooklynite," the mysterious crystal substance from the Gowanus asteroid that gave the legion their powers. Meanwhile, legion leader Astrolass (Nicolette Robinson) is ready to retire, so there may be a spot open. Incognito as "Astrid Smith-Jones" of the Save the World Foundation, Astrolass tries to help Trey in his quest. That's when she discovers how much they have in common, like tragically dead parents and a crippling sense of responsibility. But there's no time to dwell on that: Renegade legionary Avenging Angelo (Nick Cordero) has created his own pack of super-villains called the Vengeance Bunch. He's prepared to take the Brooklynite for himself, becoming powerful enough to destroy Brooklyn and move to a secret lair in Murray Hill.
While Brooklynite possesses the seeds of a really funny send-up of the superhero genre, the humor in Mayer and Lerman's book relies mostly on goofy quirks (characters referring to themselves in the third person or being really turned on by the sound of a paper shredder) and insidery quips (jokes about the elusive G train and the Park Slope food co-op). If you're the kind of person who actually rides the G train to your favorite kale joint, you might laugh heartily at Brooklynite and its references. Everyone else will feel ho-hum about the generally twee treatment Mayer and Lerman give the County of Kings — and it is a very selective vision of New York's most populous borough, more about "vegan farm to table" cuisine than plov or jerk chicken.
The program tells us the story takes place "real soon," but much of Peter Lerman's score sounds like it could have been written for George Michael circa 1987. Steven Hoggett's clawing-at-fun choreography certainly wouldn't look out of place in an '80s music video. Sound designer Kai Harada hammers home this retro vibe by treating us to ambient party music from the B-52s during the intermission and pre-show. This production regularly feels like a middle-aged aunt trying too hard to be fun and hip.
Director Mayer does little to alleviate that notion. He's led the cast to cartoonishly large performances undergirded by little sincerity. Doyle plays a generic geek. Robinson is a depressed (but still perfect) wonder woman. Powers combined, they have zero chemistry. As the show's villain, Cordero registers a surprisingly funny performance considering his character is little more than a two-dimensional "Jersey Shore'' knockoff. "Of what final ingredient of which are you speaking of," he feigns eloquence in response to Trey's assertion that the Brooklynite won't work without a secret "final ingredient." We laugh as he paces across the stage in a pleather body suit, but he's just so silly, we never actually believe he poses a real threat.
Costume designer Andrea Lauer smothers the actors in an avalanche of spandex and lamé (which several of them wear surprisingly well). Donyale Werle's set efficiently creates the many spaces required from the script, but the paint job is distractingly busy and loud.
Even with an all-star creative team (there are at least six Tony Awards among them), Brooklynite feels like a high-quality Fringe Festival musical. It's frothy and irreverent, but the stakes are so incredibly low that it is unlikely to have a lasting impact on you spare one decision: After seeing Brooklynite, you'll probably feel the urge to move to Queens.