Last night at 7PM I knew I had to get myself over to the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) to see Brooklyn Omnibus, which is part of their Next Wave Festival at the Harvey Theater. I didn’t have a ticket, I didn’t have anyone to go with but I felt compelled. It felt necessary.
I didn’t even know that show started at 7:30 PM and it was pure luck that I got there, by Eastern car service, just in the nick of time.
Pure luck, too, that there were still tickets. When I finally sat in my seat the lights dimmed immediately and the show began.
Stew, an attractive and rotund African American composer/musician/performer, was front and center in a kilt (a kilt!) with a bright red electric guitar. He was surrounded by his 12-piece band, The Negro Problem, which includes his co-writer/composer Heidi Rodewald on guitar, vocalist Eisa Davis, who starred in Passing Strange, the composers’ Tony and Obie award winning musical and players on tuba, accordion, sitar, sax, trumpet, drums and keyboards by Joe McGinty, of Loser’s Lounge fame.
I may have been expecting more of a character-driven musical theater piece. Instead, Brookyn Omnibus is a song cycle with a slew of hyperactive, inter-connected short stories on the theme of Brooklyn, from the vantage point of the composers, who are newly settled in the borough. As Stew says on a video on the BAM website, “We’re not experts on Brooklyn, we bring to it who we are.”
And that really is the fascination of the piece. Stew, who is now living in Ft. Greene, and Rodewald, who lives in Park Slope, have been living their lives in Brooklyn and they’re mirroring back what they see and feel about this place. In the process they have become a part of this place.
The Brooklyn Omnibus is their invented car service (a la Eastern), which takes them around the borough. They’ve even composed telephone hold music called “Five minutes.”
The piece is filled with these kind of authentic observations. There’s a song called Brooklyn Mothers that is actually a beautiful ode to the stroller set. There’s a racially conscious piece that imagines what happens when the shoppers of Seventh Avenue in Park Slope switch places (by levitation) with the shoppers at the Fulton Mall.
“They’d keep shopping,” Stew told the audience. “Except there’s no organic milk at the Fulton Mall and the Park Slope husbands would get in trouble with their wives (he was slightly more irreverent and descriptive about that last night).
Another piece is about the air in Bed Stuy. Still another is a love song with the chorus: “You are the Bodega where I get love.”
The very first song imagines the conversation between a Manhattan couple, when the husband wants to move to Brooklyn to “get off the grid” and the wife (sung by the marvelous Eisa Davis) does not: “Patti Smith, Taylor Mead don’t live in Brooklyn” she laments. “Are there black people in Ft. Greene?” she asks later (a line which got a huge laugh from the crowd). Finally her husband agrees to have a baby if she’ll move to Brooklyn. “Let’s go,” the wife sings.
For an encore, Stew performed Vampire, which contained the gem lyric: “Only the dead have eminent domain.”
“The history of this place is coming, staying, going. That’s the rhythm of life here and that’s also the rhythm of the piece,” Stew says in a video on the BAM website. Indeed, the piece doesn’t stay with any one story or any one neighborhood (though there’s a lot about Park Slope). Instead it moves from one idea, one neighborhood, one character’s POV to another. The glue was really the music, which is propulsive rock with a three-person gospel choir and a slew of great instrumental moments.
The glue is also Stew’s personality, his humorous talk between songs, the connection he creates between himself and the audience. At one point he explained to the crowd in a portentious voice: “what you are experiencing is process theater.” Indeed the piece is a “work in progress” and the songs aren’t even completely finished. “We’re really just flying by the seat of our pants.”
“By the seat of your kilt,” someone in the audience shouted out.
Go, you’ll love it! Tonight at 7:30 PM is the last show. It’s at BAM’s Harvey Theater on Fulton Street.