The World is Ready for These New Songs
July 22, 2003
Bob Manasco, staff writer

PEORIA - In the grand art of storytelling, there is one instant that contains the entire crux of the story. It is not the beginning, and it is not even the climax or finale. It's the key point somewhere in the middle, where one choice is made that affects the rest of the tale. Jason Robert Brown has created a collection of these moments and set them to contemporary, cutting-edge music. Says Brown, "[i]t's about one moment. It's about hitting the wall and having to make a choice, or take a stand, or turn around and go back.

"Songs For a New World, which is in previews at the Apollo Professional Theatre is that collection, and if you go (and you should!) the result is one of the most breathtaking experiences you will ever have. The show falls somewhere between traditional musical theatre, cabaret, and pop rock concert. It is a revue, so there is no overriding plot line, but it doesn't need one: each of these songs tells its own story. And these songs are simply to die for.

The Apollo has brought together four fine singer-actors who breathe such fire and energy into each piece, that it is difficult to pick highlights. Bart Shatto belts out "She Cries," and treats it with such a comedic tone, it made the audience laugh out loud, then in "I'd Give It All For You," tenderly sings of reconciliation with a lover, along with Lara Filip. Filip also draws the audience into her expressive eyes and uses her simply exquisite voice to lilt through "I'm Not Afraid of Anything." Dwelvan David brought down the house with his "The Steam Train" and "King of the World." Cara Scher yucks it up in comedy songs like "Just One Step" and "Surabaya-Santa", but then can turn in a very touching, thought-provoking rendition of "Stars and the Moon."

The real strength of this cast, though, is in their impressive group singing. I can't find enough words to praise musical director Peter Driscoll and the tight harmonies he got out of the cast on "The Steam Train," "Flying Home," and "Hear My Song." This is some of the strongest singing I've heard in Peoria.

There is an especially nice moment in "The World Was Dancing" where Filip turns to the audience and sings about never being afraid, which is a direct reference to her previous number "I'm Not Afraid of Anything." We get to see this stance on fear from both sides of the relationship, and it is extremely effective.

Almost all shows have some moment where the energy droops and the pacing gets slow. Not so with this show. There are numbers tinged with gospel or rockin' backbeats, but each and every one of the slow numbers commands attention, as well. This is a show with meaningful lyrics, and the entire cast understands them and delivers.

The play was directed by the Apollo Artistic Director Andrew Driscoll. The blocking is simple, effective, and doesn't get in the way of these terrific songs and lyrics. During a few of the numbers, like "The World Was Dancing," he includes some light movement (although I love that Shatto, singing in the first person, does not join the "world" in dancing!), and in some of the more rhythmic numbers, like "The Steam Train," the cast does some actual contemporary dance.

The set (by Jarrod Bainter and Jason Jones) was a black raised stage with colored lights in the base. Costumes were simple, versatile dress outfits with accessories like jerseys and suit coats added for key numbers. The lighting (by William E. Berkley) was particularly fine, with a range of color contrasts, fading and focusing spotlights, and even footlights, illumining actors from below on occasion. The orchestra features Peter Driscoll handing these incredibly demanding piano parts, Toby Curtwright or Bill Anderson on bass, and Colt Johnson on drums.

Jason Robert Brown is a new, fresh voice on Broadway. His work is thoroughly contemporary, rhythmic, and complex without being hard to listen to. He is shaping the direction musical theatre will go in the coming years, and this, his first production, shows his immense promise. Later this year, the Apollo will be performing his very personal The Last Five Years, but don't miss your chance to catch this energetic, vital production while it lasts. I cannot stress this hard enough: order your tickets and see this show as soon as possible. I plan on going back several more times. Take your kids, your friends, your family, and strangers you meet on the street. They will all thank you for it.

songs for a new world