UNSTRUCTURED `MUSICAL' ENDS UP SHAPELESS
St. Louis Post - Dispatch; St. Louis, Mo.; Nov 4, 1998; Judith Newmark;
Post-Dispatch Theater Critic;
 

The performers have more intensity than polish, and the material deals with
feelings, personal experiences and feelings about personal experiences. In other
words, "Songs for a New World," which opened last weekend at New Line
Theatre, is less musical theater than cabaret.

Cabaret usually depends on a strong artist whose personality shapes the
material. Musical theater, on the other hand, takes its shape from a story.
"Songs for a New World," a song-cycle by Jason Robert Brown, has neither
structure - nor any other. The unsurprising result: a fairly shapeless production.
However, co-directors Scott Miller and Alison Helmer give each number a
clean, honest presentation - no gimmicks and very little sentimentality.

According to the program, each song - and "Songs for a New World" is strictly
songs, no dialogue at all - looks at a person at a turning point, such as an
unexpected pregnancy, the break-up or beginning of a romance, the death of a
soldier. This connection is elliptical, to say the least; manufactured, to say the
most.

In any case, the best songs tell strong, self-contained stories. The hilarious
"Surabaya-Santa," a Kurt Weill send-up delivered in the style of Lotte Lenya,
is sung by a woman who turns out to be the embittered Mrs. Claus (Deborah
Sharn, a regular vamp as she flings a decadent leg, clad in knee-high hose and a
fuzzy slipper, over the back of a chair). "The Steam Train" is about an inner-city
kid (John Rhine) who dreams of basketball fame; the catchy music plays
against words that, in their offhand accounting of horrifying real-life details,
explain the appeal of a rich fantasy life.

The other songs are not so successful, though for various reasons. Some of
them are swelling, hopeful ballads that sound a touch generic. Others h int that
they were intended for a book musical in the first place. These sound as if they
fit into a context - but we don't get to find what it is. Too bad, because that
might let us know something about the characters who sing them, maybe even
care about them. Instead, the performers remain at a far remove, an odd place
for material that alludes to intimacy.

And a few songs simply misfire, most conspicuously "Just One Step," in which
a woman on the ledge of a penthouse threatens suicide because her husband
won't buy her a fur coat. Come on. People don't stand on ledges for trivial
reasons, even if trivialities are all that they can voice. It's a cheap shot.

*** `Songs for a New World'

Who: New Line Theatre

Where: St. Marcus Theatre, 2102 Russell Boulevard

When: Nov. 5-7, 12-14

How much: $15 general admission; $12 for students and older adults Tickets:
534-1111