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Cycles & Song: a Brooklyn 'Bike Shop' Takes to the Stage

Bike Shop: the Musical

"Bike Shop" is the story of a Brooklyn bicycle store circa 1993 and its owner, Bobby, an exuberant bike mechanic who runs a shop that was first opened by her grandmother in 1936. Two years after a tragic bike accident, Bobby tries to get back on her bike and get her own life in gear. 

BikeNYC spoke with performer and fitness instructor Elizabeth Barkan on some of the real-life inspirations behind her one-woman musical.

Above: Barkan at Brooklyn's Fort Greene Cycles in the early 90s (left) and as Bobby in "Bike Shop: the Musical" (right).

As a former bike racer and longtime spin class instructor, you’ve obviously gotten your feet wet in the cycling world. Do you have any first-hand experience working in bike shops?

When I was 21, my partner and I opened a bike shop in Brooklyn called Fort Greene Cycles. That was before the area came up. It was kind of like the Wild West back then — lots of hold ups! Eventually I just started leaving money in the register for them. That saved everyone a lot of time. But for the most part we had some amazing customers. Lots of artists, families and really cool people.

Why did you decide to set “Bike Shop” in Williamsburg circa 1993?

This is not an autobiographical story. A lot of people ask that, but I wanted to set this piece in a time where there were no cell phones. I drew off a lot of my old customers that would come in my store. I decided to make them my family of bicycle enthusiasts, who own a bike shop in Brooklyn.

The plot centers around a cyclist coming to grips with a “tragic bike accident” and working their way back to riding. Where did that idea come from?

As one person playing all six characters, I needed to raise the stakes. The main character Bobby is a bike messenger who makes a snap decision in an altercation with a truck driver and a 14-year-old girl gets caught in the middle and killed.

It's very upsetting to play this scene every night, but my director Gretchen Cryer pushed me to get uncomfortable with this part of the story. Later on the audience will root for her to finally get back on her bike. The bicycle is a metaphor for getting back into life.

As part of the performance, cyclists are encouraged to ride to the show and bring their bikes on the stage. Have you ever done any real repairs on an audience members’ bike?

Someone did ask me to patch a tube for them once after a show. I told them what I used to tell my customers, “You’re better off just buying a new inner tube and I’ll install it”.

You play a lot of characters in this production. Who's your favorite?

The grandmother pulls on my heart strings the most. She’s a woman way ahead of her time having opened the bike shop in 1936 just after arriving on Ellis Island. There are six characters in the show. Some are funny and others insightful. I go with my audience, If the laughs are not there, I don't fight it, I know they're with me on my journey.

How do you pull off the ‘musical’ aspect of the performance?

I tend to break out into song in my real life, which is why I love musical theater. Being the only performer on stage gives me lots of liberties to work at my own pace. Of course, I'm fortunate in that I have a fantastic band to make it all come together every night. The amazing Victoria Clark is my vocal coach. She’s like an anchor for me.

"Bike Shop" will be playing at the Theater for the New City from June 20th – July 6th. Tickets are now on sale.

Elizabeth Barkan is a native New Yorker who grew up on the Lower East Side. After graduating LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, Barkan began touring in musicals and singing in piano bars, along with Off and Off-Off Broadway shows

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