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Brooklyn OMNIBUS: Songs and Notions by Stew and Heidi Rodewald
Performed by the Negro Problem

BAM, Harvey Theater, October 22, 2010

Stew and Heidi Rodewald, the co-creators of Broadway’s mega hit Passing Strange, opened a new work this past weekend at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Described as a “musical paean to their adopted borough,” Brooklyn Omnibus is a workshop piece commissioned by the 2010 Next Wave Festival.

Heidi Rodewald and Stew: The Power Non-Couple

The work is a thoroughly enjoyable presentation of new material that felt like a live version of a 1970s concept album: a song cycle linked by both thematic content and compositional voice. Spread out on the huge stage, the band, composed of a rhythm section (keys, guitar, bass, sitar, percussion), winds (tuba, trombone, sax, trumpet), and three vocalists let you know that music was not simply driving a theatrical storyline as it did so successfully in Passing Strange, it was the straw turning the drink. The group’s name, The Negro Problem, is hilarious, although one doesn’t know what to make of it because of the seeming lack of “Negro” instrumentalists in the band. But maybe my eyes fooled me, which is cool, too.

All of the lyrics in Brooklyn Omnibus deal with various aspects of Brooklyn life, from the day-to-day irritants and pleasures of daily life in its vastly diverse neighborhoods to the larger issues of race, gender, class through which we experienced them, all delivered with the same tongue-in-cheek, “watch-me-watching-you-watching me”—humor that made Passing Strange work so well for me.

Music, humor, and visual aesthetics propel this 90-minute concert. Although Stew’s lead vocals (occasionally shared by others) are the emotional focal point of the songs, other components vie for attention. Throughout the show, several rolling projections of band close-ups diverted your sightline from the dramatis personae’s visual orbit. The largest screen became another band member as it showed images of Brooklyn street scenes, some tightly linked to the song’s lyrics. Looped throughout the performance, one can toggle between live and recorded visual stimulus as the band rocks on. At one moment, when a faux business card advertising Stew’s fictitious Brooklyn-based car service flashes on screen, I was reminded of artist and cultural critic Hank Willis Thomas’ poignant observations on the visual language of advertising. And there were other cultural referents to latch on to. Beyond the concept album/installation art piece feel of the concert, Stew’s narration provided yet another layer—theater.

When you put an ensemble of this size on a large stage, you’ll always get theater of a certain kind. But this was different. Stew’s and Rosewald’s compositional voice is perfect for the theatrical sensibility that is shoot through Brooklyn Omnibus. Their work is based primarily on short cyclic progressions held together with ostinato bass patterns that loop around and acquire sonic layers from the band as the pieces moves through time. Together with the sonic cross currents creating by the sectional work from the horns and vocals—both groups oscillating between unison lines and part harmonies—the sonic palette is perfect for the climatic explosions that theatergoers crave. The writers’ penchant for these sonic booms are notable in that they are usually followed immediately with dramatically quieter passages, and thereby, embed the songs with a sharp theatricality even without Stew’s constant monologue framing the narrative. At the same time, in true “ensemble spirit” none of the voices or instruments was obstructively virtuosic, which would have, of course, evoked another kind of theater. In fact, throughout the work, Stew seemed to direct the order and length of the solos taken. (Interestingly, after each solo the audience expressed their pleasure with applause, as they would have in a jazz club).

You better check the weekend travel advisory

As a Brooklyn resident, I was intrigued to see the streets and trains I frequent represented in the show. At one point during one of the videos, the G train makes a cameo and stops at the Bedford-Nostrand station—“my” station. This cavernous, two-story structure has to be one of the most drab and uninspiring stops on the line. Nothing about it is “song-worthy,” in my view. Yet Stew and Rosewald have taken little slices of life such as these in the BK and drawn inspiration from them. Good music about a curious theme in a piece that combines the aesthetics of the concept album, installation art, and pop theater with the lightening and sound designers tooled up and on stage with the band. It worked for me. I should mention that on the night I saw the show, for some reason, Stew wore a black kilt that exposed calves the size of an NFL center. Dude is courageous, and I know in a friendly game of pick-up, he’d make the first round. Like the Brooklyn Omnibus itself, which as I said is a work-in-process, I’m still processing that particular visual element of the show. Can’t wait to see how all develops. Heidi and Stew have done it again.

Guthrie Ramsey