Songs for a New World

For fans of the contemporary musical, City Theatre Company's production of the Jason Robert Brown revue Songs for a New World is a welcome opportunity for fresh, engaging entertainment

Arts Review

Songs for a New World

City Theatre, through May 27

Songs for a New World is a 15-song cycle by Jason Robert Brown made up of songs that the still-young composer wrote during his 20s for a variety of productions. The setting of the play is listed in the program as "one moment," and each of the songs addresses one moment of decision, crisis, or change in the lives of a wide variety of characters, from the crew of one of Columbus' ships to a man struggling to leave a complicated relationship with a pregnant woman singing of the wonder of her situation. Brown won a Tony for his 1999 musical, Parade, and, along with other awards and accolades, is often credited as the bright new hope of musical theatre, a composer who understands and respects the conventions of the genre while making it relevant and engaging to a new, younger audience. He most certainly displays an uncanny facility with the genre; his songs sound like nothing if not musical theatre.

And therein lies one of the striking aspects of this City Theatre Company production. Typically, musical revues – those medleys of showstopping numbers and tender ballads – are reserved for those composers whose canons are already familiar, in the "Night of Sondheim! Songs of Rodgers and Hart!" vein. Watching a revue of unfamiliar songs from unknown plays has a kind of postmodern fascination and forces the audience to contemplate the idiosyncrasies of the genre with a novel directness, unclouded by memories of their high school production of Annie Get Your Gun or the first time they saw Phantom.

In many ways, it is a brave undertaking and will quickly separate those who respond to the distinctive style of musical theatre in its own right and those who tend to rely on context, character, and plot to leaven the often-overbearing musical grandiosity that is one of its hallmarks. There is a nagging sense of arbitrary emphasis that plagues quite a few of the songs, an impression of vague, overweening importance that seems to have supplanted in many recent examples of the genre the more quotidian ambition of musical and lyrical cohesion.

Still, there are times when this tendency to aggrandize works to the advantage of the talented ensemble. With each song an isolated snapshot, a lot rests on the individual performer to deliver, and the ones here do admirably, for the most part. On the sparse, white architectural set with only the barest outlines of prop or costume, the singers do a very good job of bringing each of these songs to a complete and fully realized moment, a strong testament to the excellent direction by Andy Berkovsky. The solos are alternately moving and affecting or humorous and entertaining. Glenna Bowman performs a spot-on German cabaret number as Mrs. Claus with "Surabaya Santa," and Tyler Jones gives a wry and engaging portrait of emotional indecision in "She Cries." Cathie Sheridan as a suicidal Park Avenue matron is another highlight and an audience favorite. But the production really shines in the group numbers, most particularly a snappy number sung by derelicts and prostitutes and the rousing finale of each act. Here, the cast projects an energy that is palpable and achieves that singing-your-heart-out, Great White Way chutzpah that is the real pleasure of classic musical theatre.

The City Theatre is an engaging young establishment, and this production, with its pared-down format, seems well-suited to it. For fans of the contemporary musical, this is a welcome opportunity for an evening of fresh, engaging entertainment; for those with reservations toward the genre, it is doubtful the production will win any converts.

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Songs for a New World, City Theatre Company, Andy Berkovsky

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