"U-Daily News - STAGE"
A Dazzling Discovery
By Evan Henerson, Theater Critic

THERE'S NO really good reason why "Songs for a New World,' a series of not-really-related songs written by Jason Robert Brown, should resonate so beautifully. A 9/11-referenced, structure-free musical revue set in a coffee house kind of sounds like the spawn of "Rent' without the disease. Brown's songs weren't even inspired by the Sept. 11 attacks, although the structuring of the piece in its L.A. premiere make it seem like they might have been.

Not that it matters. Under the crack staging of Jon Lawrence Rivera for Playwrights' Arena and TRDZ Productions, the four singers assembled for "Songs' do this material proud. Brown ("Parade,' "The Last Five Years') remains a composer worth watching and this early effort proves hopeful and even a bit euphoric.

Before we get to the music, let's award the first medal for the scenery, credited to Rivera and Justin Huen. The transformation of stage 3 of the Los Angeles Theatre Center into the fictional Santa Maria Cafe in L.A. is so seamless and unforced that you want to hang out and chat even when the play is not going on. The furniture is a funky chic mix of Melrose-y divans and sofas. The action is configured in the round with the audience sprinkled on couches or at tables around the theater. The art work and the preshow music by Mary Coppin are further scene enhancers. We really are among the action.
When the music starts, it becomes apparent that -- big surprise! -- the four cast members have been among us the entire time, reading magazines, working the bar or a laptop. They are Jennifer Paz, Casey Jones, Steven Janji and Rick Cornette. And singing together or solo, they are unilaterally terrific.

Paz is a student, newly pregnant, involved in an off-again-on-again -- I think -- relationship with Cornette the jock. Jones is trapped in an unsatisfying marriage while Janji is the counter help who dreams of making it as an artist. There is no dialogue. We learn about the characters through their songs, which are largely situational and don't really mesh. The first act is set on the morning of Sept. 11. In act 2, the same characters gather again at the Santa Maria a few months later, probably for the last time.

That cafe name is hardly accidental. "Songs' kicks into gear with overt messages of a nation of people embarked on a new, hopeful voyage. "Lord, these men are hungry,' sings Janji, leading the ensemble in the early number "On the Deck of a Spanish Sailing Ship, 1492.'

Storytelling isn't a major point of the exercise here. Brown's optimistic lyrics and tuneful melodies -- written when the composer was struggling and lonely in New York -- serve as able pick-me-ups from the moment Paz launches into the anthem-like "A New World' to the ensemble finale, "Hear My Song.'

Paz, the show's producer as well as its star, has many of the best numbers including "I'm Not Afraid of Anything,' the song that references her unborn child. Jones gets a little carried away with some of the comic numbers, but her failed marriage anthem, "Stars and the Moon' strikes just the right tone of ruefulness.

I'm not sure why the artist rather than the athlete would lead "Steam Train,' the first-act-closing number about basketball. Cornette and Janji both have unprepossessing regular-guy appeal that balance and blend with the work of the ladies.

Fluid movement isn't always easy in this environment, but choreographer Kay Cole does her usually steady work guiding the foursome around limited space. Credit Rivera for fitting a non-9/11 concept into a 9/11 framework without having the enterprise feel like a shoehorn was used. The project is clearly as personal to Rivera as it was to the composer and, I suspect, to Paz as well. If you go, be sure to read the program, which puts a lot of the performance in context.

Or else, simply order a coffee, sit back and drink in Brown's wonderful music.

songs for a new world