Monday, June 24, 2013
Theater review: Live in the moment with the cast of Songs for a New World musical
This abstract musical will offer an experience you won't soon forget.
DALLAS More like a song cycle or revue, with 16 of Brown's cabaret and theater songs held together by the common theme of facing new worlds moment by moment and making the choices Mr. Brown speaks of in his quote, this show is not your usual musical comedy. There are no individual characters or a linear plot to discuss or follow as in a traditional book musical, yet each song is like a one-act play in itself. You can impose an arc on a particular character by the songs sung by a recurring singer, and look for a progression in that way but you will probably just enjoy each song for itself. Indeed, while one song, "Stars and the Moon," has become a standard recorded by such singers as Audra McDonald and Betty Buckley, all of these songs tell stories. They give us a life in a few moments. That, for me, is their appeal. Exploration, choice and consequences are consistently explored.
The composer/lyricist, Jason Robert Brown, who celebrated his 42nd birthday on June 20, is one of musical theater's brightest young composers, lyricists and playwrights. He worked in New York as a piano player for nightclubs and cabarets until he met Daisy Prince, the daughter of Hal Prince, of musical theater and Broadway fame. She helped Brown put some of his works together and write new ones to form the piece which became Songs for a New World. She also directed the show which opened in 1995 when Brown was 25. It ran for only 28 performances, but the original cast recording soon became a cult hit and the show has since grown into a beloved and oft produced part of the American musical theater.
Brown then went on to write the music for Parade, which was directed by Hal Prince, ran for 85 performances and won the composer a Tony Award for "Best Score" and the Drama Desk Award for Music. His third musical was The Last Five Years, also directed by Daisy Prince, partially based on his failed marriage to Terri O'Neill, Daisy's secretary. This musical opened in Illinois in 2001 then moved Off-Broadway where it closed after two months. It won the Drama Desk Award for "Outstanding Music, Lyrics and Orchestrations." It too has become something of a cult hit and was recently revived at Second Stage Theatre in New York.
Brown was again nominated for a Tony for his work in Urban Cowboy, but lost to Hairspray. His latest work, 13, opened in 2007 in Los Angeles, transferred to Broadway, and ran for three months. His musical adaptation of The Bridges of Madison County will open at the Williamstown Theatre Festival August 1 and move to Broadway January 2014. Another project, Honeymoon in Vegas, opens at the Paper Mill Playhouse September 26.
Entering the auditorium of the Kalita Humphreys Theater you see the dimly lit stage revealing a series of dark gray platforms and steps backed by a large cyclorama shadowed at the edges. The music begins and we're off to discover the true meaning of the musical's title. And what a world it is! Glorious singing from all eight talented cast members backed by a strong and confident orchestra transport you immediately into this evening's new world, the world of these songs, these stories and this in the moment experience.
While the show is usually done by only two men and two women, the choice to double that number adds a richness and variety to the show. The choral numbers become even more rousing and full bodied and the larger cast adds an interesting, strong sense of unity that Uptown Players says they are all about.
This is a true ensemble piece and each gets their moment –- or two –- to shine. Sara Shelby-Martin stops the show with "Surabaya-Santa," doing a Marlene Dietrich impression as she drags her chair across the stage to Brown's Kurt Weill homage. John Campione rocks the house with "The River Won't Flow," and Peter DeCesare's lovely tenor soars on "I'm Not Afraid of Anything." Laura Lites takes "Sun and the Moon," probably the most familiar song from the show, and makes it her own, while Danielle Estes croons the lovely "Christmas Lullaby" and Jonathan Bragg breaks your heart singing "I'd Give it All for You."
Feleceia Benton brings great depth to "The Flagmaker" and Walter Lee sings the most emotionally-charged song of the evening, "Flying Home." Each also gets a moment to shine vocally during the group numbers and shine they do.
This show demands singers who can act and the nature of the show puts the singer in the position of creating a whole character and his or her world in each song. The cast assembled for this production is uniformly strong and able and together they form one of the strongest musical ensembles I've seen in years. Every song becomes a whole story capsuled into a few moments thanks to their abilities.
Coy Covington is to be commended for his fresh ideas in putting this show together. "On the Deck of a Spanish Sailing Ship" becomes a song about immigration, "King of the World" one about despots, and so on. Also, looking at the material from a gay perspective illuminates without imposing unnecessarily.
Switching genders for some of the songs and using the gay experience to tie some of the numbers together works wonderfully. Too much detail would spoil the effect, but let me say that the unexpected background projections bring a whole new perspective to the idea of a "New World."
Mr. Covington skillfully moves his singer-actors over, under and between the platforms as they revolve around the stage.
If occasionally you wish the cast would just stand still and sing or not move so far upstage away from the audience, it doesn't hurt the overall effect and keeps the action moving. While perhaps a bit over-produced for such a simple show, the extra performers and technical flourishes keep what might have been static performances more interesting to watch and listen to.
The creative team is uniformly strong, starting with Rodney Dobbs' mammoth set. It is a puzzle piece that is from one angle very straightforward and from others intriguingly complex. It uses the Kalita Humphreys stage revolve to good effect, often moving it during a song or to smoothly flow from one scene to the next. I especially love the moment in "On the Deck of a Spanish Sailing Ship" when the corner of a top platform becomes the prow of the ship.
Some texturization might have visually aided the flatness of the platform color, but that's a minor complaint.
Lighting Designer Amanda West and Multimedia Designer H. Bart McGeehon have created some stunning visuals. The lighting changes accentuate and support the moment being created by the singers and the projections on the back cyc, while distracting at first, add so much, especially at critical moments. The shooting star across the sky at the end of "Sun and the Moon" is a wonderful touch, putting the right button on a terrific song. The follow spot operator(s) seemed a little shaky at times on opening night, but I feel certain that will clear up very soon.
Costumes by Suzi Cranford and wigs and makeup by Coy Covington help the singer-actors embody each character they assume in a way that seems right without being overtly costumed except when needed -- like the Christmas boa in the Santa song. In basic, dark colored street clothes, costume pieces are added for various songs. At the end, I loved that all were in shades of grey.
Kevin Gunter as music director has done a masterful job with this complex and difficult music. The singers are confident and clear and their articulation, emphasis, dynamics and emotion for the songs is due, I'm sure, in no small part to Mr. Gunter.
The orchestra sounds terrific as well. Their volume is high, but not overly so, and usually there is no problem hearing the singers over the orchestra.
In doing research, I came across an article entitled "Inside Songs for a New World" by Scott Miller. It is a fascinating breakdown look into every song with a complete analysis that links each song in the cycle. Anyone who is seriously interested in this show and the works of Mr. Brown would probably enjoy reading it. You certainly may not agree with everything he has to say but it is none the less thought provoking and illuminating to see his thoughts. His ideas opened up whole new ways of listening to his works for me.
This is a terrific show, gorgeously sung and well-staged, packing one emotional wallop after another. Despite the fact there is no linear story to follow, the overall theme of meeting new worlds and either conquering or being conquered by them, and the redemption that can result either way, is one that resonates long after the show has ended.
Each lyric, supported and illuminated by the melody, tells a story by allowing the character who is singing to let us into their soul for that moment. Each story is moving, profound, funny, sad, or simply involving, but each demands its own back story and motivation. The songs progress clearly from beginning to end. Situations are set up, characters emerge through their words and a presented conflict must be resolved.
In a 1998 review in St. Louis' Riverfront Times, Mike Isaacson wrote, "Songs for a New World is that very rare beast: an abstract musical. There is no specific location other than the natural ambiguity of the human heart and mind."
Great singing actors are what is needed and, thank heaven and Uptown Players, they have been found and are performing at the Kalita Humphreys Theatre right now, resulting in an experience you won't soon forget.
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