Upbeat 'Songs' Sweet, Not Sappy

By Michael Toscano
Special to the Washington Post
Thursday, March 13, 2003; Page GZ26

Broadway may have been on strike last weekend but that didn't matter  
at the Kensington Armory, where rapt audiences enjoyed the opening of  
"Songs for a New World," an extraordinary musical staged by the new  
Kensington Arts Theatre. Despite technical limitations, six performers  
unleashed considerable talent, their soaring voices and compelling  
stage presence taking the audience on an enthralling journey of  

"Songs for a New World" is a collection of love ballads,  
Sondheim-inspired show tunes, new-agey inspirational anthems, pop, R&B  
and even jazzy, gospel-tinged showstoppers originally written for a  
series of failed projects by a struggling young songwriter named Jason  
Robert Brown. Director Daisy Prince gathered them together into a  
cohesive unit and opened the show off-Broadway in 1995 to only minor  
success. But since then, the show has been winning over audiences while  
flying below the radar of widespread public attention.

It is a revue-style musical without dialogue or traditional plot,  
each of the 18 songs a vignette highlighting a critical crossroads  
people face in life. Brown wrote the music while alone and lonely in  
New York, declaring, "It's about hitting a wall and having to make a  
choice, or take a stand, or turn around and go back."

Locally, director Michael Pranikoff has assembled a stellar  
ensemble, keeping the staging simple and with only rudimentary  
choreography from Danika Kirstin Ingle. Singing together or in solo  
flights, they make their way through the theme-setting anthem "A New  
World" at the top to the prayerful, inspirational "Hear My Song" that  
ends this paean to perseverance and elicits a few audience tears.

Wendy Baird steps out of the ensemble for several of the show's  
highlights, taking an archly humorous detour early in the first act  
with "Just One Step," about a frustrated New York matron perched 57  
stories above Fifth Avenue, and also performing "Surabaya-Santa," a  
clever parody of a Kurt Weill song, in which a disgruntled Mrs. Claus  
tells off Santa.

In counterpoint, Michelle Simon follows with a goose bump-inducing  
rendition of the enchanting "Christmas Lullaby," as a single  
mother-to-be thanks God for the gift of her child. Simon, in an  
impressive Washington area debut, also shines in "I'm Not Afraid of  
Anything," a confident declaration of independence from marriage.

That stance is countered later by the memory-colored hymn "I'd Give  
It All for You," a duet tenderly sung by CJ Allyn and Michael Hadary.  
Allyn's crystal-pure soprano is achingly beautiful, spotlighted in the  
folk-tinged ballad, "Stars and the Moon," which is becoming a cabaret  

"Songs for a New World" usually has a multiethnic cast, and the  
fact that this is a homogeneous group of Caucasians dilutes the impact  
of several songs somewhat, including the sometimes atonal and  
meandering "The Steam Train." The song, about a young black man who  
dreams of becoming a basketball star, is sung by the entire company,  
including Steven Block, complete with basketball-tossing choreography.

Jason Misner is striking, however, as he performs, in a  
straitjacket, "King of the World," about a Nelson Mandela figure who  
leads his people only to suffer imprisonment.

The outstanding cast provides enough grit, enough edge in their  
performances to keep this experience poetic and hopeful without  
becoming a chipper "Up With People" experience. They overcome ragged  
lighting and a flawed set design that clutters the stage with a  
cheap-looking cityscape that limits their movement as well as their  
message. They cannot, however, completely overcome an over-caffeinated  
drummer who drowns out all but a few new-age tinkles from one of the  
keyboards, rendering another keyboard and a bass completely unheard.

Perhaps the most hopeful aspect of this production is not onstage,  
however, but in the audience, heavily populated with lustily cheering  
young people who provide some much-needed new life for a graying  
theater community.

"Songs For a New World" will be performed through March 22 by  
the Kensington Arts Theatre at the Kensington Town Center Armory, 3710  
Mitchell St. Shows are at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, with a 3 p.m.  
matinee this Sunday. For tickets, call 301-547-7101.

Songs for a New World