"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
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
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
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
Or else, simply order a coffee, sit back and drink in Brown's wonderful music.
songs for a new world