Posted on Mon, Jan. 24, 2005
Gifted cast drives 'Songs' home
Four powerful singer-actors lead a journey along the treacherous, hopeful path of young adulthood.

We take risks and run away. Declare our strength and tremble in fear. Seek what's meaningful and embrace the superficial.

In his eclectic Songs for a New World , composer-lyricist Jason Robert Brown demonstrates that he knows what it is to navigate the rough waters of young adulthood. Cynicism, idealism, achievement and loss are threaded through the unpredictable journey to maturity, and they form the fabric of Brown's bold, complex and often dazzling revue.

Now at Actors' Playhouse in Coral Gables, Songs for a New World is, in some ways, a job interview for the Broadway composing career Brown would achieve with his Tony Award-winning 1998 score for Parade . A collection of songs written throughout his early 20s, the 1995 revue shows off Brown's versatility, with cabaret songs, gospel -- and jazz-infused numbers, tender ballads, comic turns and grandly theatrical showstoppers.

The material is moving, entertaining, accessible. But it's also musically complex, and pulling it off requires a quartet of powerful singer-actors and a top-notch musical director. So director David Arisco put together his own dream team for the production and got it very right.

Though the cast contains just two men and two women -- Carbonell Award-winner Tally Sessions and his Floyd Collins costar Blythe Gruda are joined by Carbonell winner Rachel Jones and Actors' Playhouse newcomer Kevin Smith Kirkwood -- each is a vocal powerhouse, so the four can sound like a mini-multitude.

Yet each actor has subtlety as well as strength, infusing solos with an interpretive richness that really does turn the songs into little stand-alone plays.

Jones brings both tenderness and maternal joy to Christmas Lullaby . Her rendition of the show's best-known song, the ironic Stars and the Moon , is a marvel of control, nuanced acting and understated power. She makes The Flagmaker, 1775 , a song sung by a woman mad with worry for her soldier-son, seem fiercely contemporary. And as the comically suicidal wife in Just One Step , she's so funny that you'd kill to see her as Miss Adelaide in Guys and Dolls .

Sessions and Gruda carry the story line of a man and woman who cannot connect. Gruda's defiant I'm Not Afraid of Anything is a song of self-persuasion, delivered by a woman deeply fearful that the man she adores can't return her love. Sessions' She Cries is the howl of a man who's emotionally trapped and desperate to run. In The World Was Dancing , the two sing of a happy ending turned sour. But that sentiment gets turned around in I'd Give It All for You , when self-centeredness yields to enduring love.

Kirkwood gets the thrilling Act One closer, The Steam Train , a song in which a guy from a tumultuous background swaggeringly declares his intention to become a famous basketball player. Moving swiftly, slickly to Barbara Flaten's wonderfully showy choreography, Kirkwood leaves no doubt that this guy has the will to overcome. He plays that man's antithesis in King of the World , a song of defiance and defeat from a guy who had and lost it all.

Musical director and pianist Eric Alsford leads the excellent onstage musical ensemble, with players placed at either side of Gene Seyffer's rotating jungle-gym-with-stairs set, a thing more utilitarian than clever.

Still, the real setting of Songs for a New World , also constantly changing, flows from Brown's words and rushing music. The actors and musicians transport listeners from one world to the next. And make us eager to take the journey.

songs for a new world