Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, July 2005
Songs for a New World is basically a semi-staged concert of songs by Jason Robert Brown, an up-and-coming young composer and lyricist. In the decade since its brief 28 performance premiere at the WPA theatre in New York, the show has had over 300 hundred productions, being especially popular with college and community theatres because it requires a small cast and set. Brown was 25 when the show had its premiere, and therefore younger still when he wrote the songs it contains. The songs positively ooze youth, and director Doug Hodge has wisely assembled a talented cast of 20-somethings for his production at the Theater Barn.
Brown has been widely touted as the heir to Stephen Sondheim, and his electrifying 1998 musical “Parade” shows that that heavy mantle may indeed someday be his, but these songs, written at different times for different projects, are less convincing evidence. Frankly, with the exception of Just One Step and Surabaya Santa which are character numbers, all the songs sounded the same to me. They didn’t sound bad, just similar. And since there is no character, plot, or dialogue to hang the numbers on, they just sort of meld into one long serenade of sameness.
This is a problem with the style of the show, rather than with Hodge’s production. He has taken his able cast and arranged them artistically on Abe Phelps’ attractive, multi-layered set. Neither of the two women – Laura Binstock and Margaret Kelly – took a header down the railing-less stairs in their high heels, and the two men – Matt Hinkley and Jeremy Lawrence – bounded about on it in that energetic manner that theatrical types adopt when there isn’t really any motivation for their movements. Everyone sings very nicely, and it is always a treat to enjoy fine voices without the filter of body mikes and amplification, but I don’t really think this is theatre. It is a very pleasant concert of early works by a man who we may soon regard as a leading American composer.
The cast poses nice contrasts. Hinkley and Binstock are both attractive in a preppy way, while Kelly sports dramatic dark hair and eyes and Lawrence is a handsome African-American. They each approach their solos with style and vigor and do their level best to make their mark. Kelly gets the big hit number from the show, Stars and the Moon, and Binstock gets to vamp it up with a couple of elves in Surabaya Santa, an hilarious send-up of Kurt Weill. Lawrence has several strong solo turns, but really rocks the house close to the end in Flying Home. Hinkley’s strongest moment is his solo on She Cries.
Brown is a pianist, lots of his early theatrical gigs were as a rehearsal pianist or accompanist, and he played in a number of piano bars and nightclubs. The piano therefore features prominently in Songs for a New World and I was sorry that Hodge chose to hide pianist and musical director Jeremy Fenn-Smith, percussionist Mary E. Rodriguez, and bassist Raymond Jung backstage. They sounded great and, since there was no plot for them to distract from, I would have enjoyed seeing them perform along with the singers.
Stephanie Luette’s costumes are a mixed bag. Each performer wears just one outfit for the entire show, and while Lawrence and Hinkley both looked city casual in button down shirts and slacks (Hinkley’s shirt was pink and tucked in and Lawrence’s was pewter gray and untucked), the women looked uncomfortably over-dressed. Binstock wore an annoying little shrug sweater of no real color over an attractive baby blue halter top and white slacks (I really think only nurses should wear white), while Kelly stayed in a sleeveless mauve cocktail dress with an asymmetrical hemline and precipitously high heels. Why couldn’t the ladies have been more dressed-down chic like the men, particularly when they were required to scale the heights of Abe Phelps’ set just as frequently?
Allen Phelps lighting seems more suitable to a concert than a theatrical show. I always think that theatrical lighting falls into two basic styles: realistic (you don’t notice it) and dramatic (you are aware of it as it is used to heighten dramatic effect). At one point towards the end of Act I Allen Phelps put on a veritable light show, which, while not offensive, would have been more appropriate in a concert. There should be other things to entertain you in the theatre beyond pretty colored flashing lights.
Brown’s music is good if not great, the cast is capable and attractive, the show is professionally staged. If these elements entertain you, by all means go and see Songs for a New World. Just don’t be fooled into thinking you are going to see theatre.
Songs for a New World runs through August 7 at The Theater Barn, located on Rt. 20 just west of the town of New Lebanon, NY. The show runs an hour and forty minutes with one intermission and is suitable for the whole family. Call the box office at 518-794-8989 for tickets and information.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2005