Review: A Crowd-Pleasing ‘Songs for a New World’ Opens Encores! Off-Center Season
By Christopher Caggiano, Contributing Writer, June 29, 2018
There’s something about Jason Robert Brown that inspires an almost cult-like devotion. Although none of his shows thus far has achieved genuine blockbuster status, there’s something about his works (in particular Parade, The Last Five Years, and Bridges of Madison County) that generates fierce loyalty among aficionados.
That loyalty is currently on display at New York City Center, which is hosting a concert staging of Brown’s revue Songs for a New World as part of the Encores! Off-Center summer series. At the performance I saw, the many JRB fanboys and fangirls in attendance made their presence known from the outset, shrieking with delight before anyone had even sung a note. More on this later, but I was heartened by the relatively youthful audience, easily the youngest of any Encores! audience I’ve been a part of in my many years of attendance.
I may not march among the rabid JRB fanboys, but I have tremendous respect for Brown as a composer, lyricist, and orchestrator, and consider him one of the most talented and ambitious people we currently have working on new musicals. Brown appears to have developed a great deal since Songs for a New World premiered over 20 years ago. And yet there are seeds in New World of the masterful songwriter he would eventually become.
In an interview in the Encores! program, Brown relates that he was inspired by attending Maltby and Shire’s Closer Than Ever to write a revue in a similar vein. The four performers that comprise the cast to New World are meant to have consistent character traits and arcs over the course of the show.
I had only ever heard the songs from New World in other contexts, but upon seeing the show as a unit, I did notice consistent characteristics among the players, and thematic connections between adjacent songs. For instance, the lyric to “I’m Not Afraid of Anything” refers to flying, as does that of the preceding song, “Just One Step,” although the flying there is of a decidedly different type.
On the whole, Songs for a New World reveals the young Jason Robert Brown as a songwriter with great potential, but one who will require a great deal of development in his future. You can see his inexperience in the earnest, bald-faced nature of some of his lyrics. The character who sings “Hear My Song” claims that doing so will “help you believe in tomorrow.” Yeesh.
But then we have a haunting character song from Betsy Ross, of all people, in “The Flagmaker, 1775.” Brown takes this hoary American fable and evinces the humanity of the real person behind it, which is quite an accomplishment for a 25-year-old songwriter.
Many of the other songs in the show attempt to portray the people in them as complex in a Sondheim-in vein, but the results are not always satisfying. This is particularly true in “The World Was Dancing,” a fractured song about a young man going off to college, the family drama he leaves behind him, and the romantic drama he creates in response.
Other than the piece itself, the two main attractions in the current production of Songs for a New World lie in its talented cast and expert production team. Shoshana Bean is sharp and funny as ever as Woman 2 (the Jessica Molaskey track in the original production). Bean gives nicely controlled yet hilarious rendition of “Just One Step,” which features a spoiled manhattan wife threatening to jump off her 5th Avenue balcony unless her husband buys her a fur.
Would that Bean had maintained the same level of control during “Surabaya Santa,” which went a bit over the top, including what threatened to become a Janet Jackson-type wardrobe malfunction.
Colin Donnell is amiable but under-energized in the Brooks Ashmanskas track, and he went distractingly sharp during a few of his numbers, including, “She Cries.” Solea Pfeiffer as Woman 1 is full voiced and sweet, with a nice sense of support during her softer singing, but with a slight tendency to hyper-emote, particularly at the very end of the show.
The clear audience favorite in the cast was Mykal Kilgore, a very animated and appealing performer — if a bit too conscious of, and responsive to, the stimulating effect he was having on the audience. In his defense, it was pretty clear that the audience wanted vocal histrionics, and Kilgore’s eager efforts to oblige were met with shrill squeals of approval.
Kate Whoriskey may seem a surprising choice to direct a pop-inflected revue. Whoriskey’s most notable credits include directing two Pulitzer winners by Lynne Nottage, Ruined and Sweat. But the material here, upon close inspection, is actually not too distant from her previous work, with its nervous edginess and frequent focus on the plight of African Americans. The production begins with four musical stands on stage, giving the impression that a standard staged reading will follow, but Whoriskey eventually opens up the stage and makes liberal use of platforms both behind and in front of the nine-piece onstage band.
A particularly inspired choice was to bring in renowned hip-hop choreographer Rennie Harris (who seems to know exactly how good he is, based on his rather immodest bio in the program.) Harris’ choreography created a sort of connective tissue for the production, drawing the feel of one song into the world of the next.
Songs for a New World presented by Encores! Off-Center at New York City Center, 131 West 55th Street, June 27-30, 2018. Music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown. Directed by Kate Whoriskey; choreography by Rennie Harris; music direction by Tom Murray.
Cast: Shoshana Bean, Colin Donnell, Mykal Kilgore, and Solea Pfeiffer
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Cover: Mykal Kilgore and company in ‘Songs for a New World;’ photo: Joan Marcus.