A 'New World' worth discovering

 Admirable expertise marks "Songs for a New World" in its local  
premiere by Playwrights Arena at Los Angeles Theatre Center. Jason  
Robert Brown's abstract 1995 revue about life's turning points receives  
a highly accomplished production.

  Though "New World" had a limited run of 28 performances at  
Manhattan's WPA Theatre, it conclusively established composer-lyricist  
Brown as a major talent, leading to 1999's "Parade," a Tony Award and a  
fervent fan base.

  They surely will cheer this staging. Director Jon Lawrence Rivera and  
co-set-designer Justin Huen concoct a vivid environmental coffeehouse,  
swimming in mismatched furnishings and original art.

  The concept permits Rivera's sleek quartet of performers, initially  
planted around the audience, to attack Brown's lustrous, emotionally  
specific songs with breathtaking intimacy.

  Jennifer Paz is, as ever, angelic of voice and person, piercing the  
heart with her pregnant co-ed's "Christmas Lullaby." Rick Cornette's  
love-burned jock is matinee-idol handsome, with a soaring tenor and an  
uncanny ability to withstand audience eye contact. Steven Janji,  
although nobody's hoopster, invests his streetwise server with  
unswerving fervor. Casey Jones' disillusioned trophy wife, whose  
haunting "Stars and the Moon" may be "New World's" best song, counters  
her slender instrument with valiant commitment.

  Kay Cole's choreography is precise, Brent Crayon's musical direction  
is colorful, Elle Hamm's costumes are convincing and Gerry Gregory  
Linsangan's lighting plot is astounding.

  Less so is Rivera's revised text, setting the action before and after  
Sept. 11. This well-intended notion is better left to subtext, the  
tragic overlay demanding a weight beyond Brown's series of virtual  
one-acts. These nevertheless retain their celebrated potency, which  
recommends this keenly executed miniature.

 --David C. Nichols

  "Songs for a New World," Los Angeles Theatre Center, 514 S. Spring  
St., L.A. Thursdays-Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 3 and 8 p.m. Ends Aug.  
9. $30-$25. (310) 578-2378. Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes.

songs for a new world