Full of Hope
CCM revue Songs for a New World presents an array of stories and emotions
REVIEW BY RICK PENDER
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world
That has such people in it.
- The Tempest, Miranda
When Shakespeare wrote those lines in 1613 or thereabouts, the "new world"
was still being discovered the Pilgrims hadn't yet landed at Plymouth
Rock, and there was a lot of speculation about what might be found across
the ocean. Those observations were full of awe, with a touch of fear, but
a high sense of expectation.
When Jason Robert Brown's musical revue, Songs for a New World, was
cobbled together in 1995 he was all of 25 himself a similar set
of emotions surely pervaded his psyche and found their way into his music.
The 16 songs that comprise this brief show each offer a small vignette into
the mind of a man or a woman or a couple who experience some revelation.
In many cases, they are people on the front end of life, about to open a
door to discover a broader vista: They are full of hope, but not without
trepidation about the responsibilities maturity will bring them. They aren't
lacking in a sense of humor, either, or in feelings about exploring the fundamental
issues of faith, love, regret and devotion.
On May 2 and 3, I had an unusual opportunity to see this four-person
revue interpreted by two different casts at UC's College-Conservatory of
Music. It was a fascinating experience, because it let me observe the strength
of Diane Lala's direction with two sets of performers and the individual
talents of the eight singers who brought Brown's varied score to life.
Songs for a New World is a bit of a challenge because, beyond the themes
I have mentioned, the thread of continuity is tenuous. A few numbers suggest
that Brown's early endeavors included a show about American history: After
the show's set-up opener, we find ourselves "On the Deck of a Spanish Sailing
Ship, 1492" where a weary captain perhaps Columbus? is praying
for relief for his crew, worn down by a long voyage. It's apparent that the
New World is still several leagues away, but his sense of faith and hope
carries him onward.
Toward the end of the second act, we meet Betsy Ross, "The Flagmaker,
1775," doing what she knows best sewing while struggling with
anxiety over the fate of the men she cares about. (Surely the two actresses
who sang this number, Betsy Wolfe and Lindsay Pier, must have felt its resonance
as they rehearsed it during the recent invasion of Iraq.) The following number,
"Flying Home," about a final voyage of a man (sung by Keldon Price and J.
Michael Kinsey) who has died fighting, is full of satisfaction and resolution
at having made a difference.
Between those bookends is a wide variety of material: We follow the
thread of a couple's relationship (portrayed by Emily Jones and Doug Barton
in one cast and Gina Restani and Geoff Packard in the other). They struggle
with commitment in "I'm Not Afraid" (she tells us that he is afraid, of course;
and down deep, she really is, too), "She Cries" (her expression of emotion
frustrates and scares him), "The World Was Dancing" (she's there for him,
even when he's not certain he wants her), and finally, "I'd Give It All for
You," (a tentative then rhapsodic recognition that they need to set aside
individuality and support each other). These numbers, interpreted with genuine
warmth by Jones and Barton, and with a very slight glimmer of humor by Restani
and Packard, provide a truly satisfying arc across Songs for a New World.
There is frenetic power in several numbers, given principally to Price
and Kinsey. "The Steam Train" has a driving energy and an ominous insight:
"You don't know me ... but you will." Price, who overflows with bright energy,
made this seem an intriguing opportunity, while Kinsey, who brings a solid,
soulful presence, offered it as a threat. In both cases, I would have liked
to see the increasing darkness present in the lyrics hammered home more resolutely.
Nevertheless, both singers offered a thought-provoking conclusion to the
Kinsey and Price's big second act solo, "The King of the World," was
the only number I disliked, although not because of their performances. The
song is about a man who has outrun his potential, made bad decisions and
now must pay the price. The song is about denial, resolving in a moment of
searing recognition. But the final image sitting in an electric chair
with flashing light effects seemed overly obvious.
Lindsay Pier and Betsy Wolfe get to tell the show's most vivid stories
in several numbers that stand almost totally alone. Two are comic vignettes
about women wanting attention: One teeters on a 57th floor balcony high over
New York City because she can't get her way in "Just One Step"; in act two,
Santa's latest Mrs. Claus yearns for more in the Kurt Weill parody, "Surabaya
Santa." But Wolfe and Pier also get serious moments, including the aforementioned
"Flagmaker" number and my favorite song from Songs for a New World, "Stars
and the Moon." This number is a wondrous piece of self revelation: A young
woman declines offers of love and marriage, holding out for material things.
Once she has them in hand, she realizes that she's missed out on the most
important part "the moon."
All the glorious singing Brown writes melodies that wring personality
and emotion from every note was admirably accompanied by pianist Danny
Percefull and Julie Danielson on bass and Olivia Kieffer handling percussion.
The composer accompanied the original production from the keyboard, so the
piano part is really a fifth voice in the show several numbers conclude
with simple, repeated note progressions (including "Stars and the Moon")
that become a dialogue with the singer.
There was nothing fancy about the physical side of this CCM production,
designed by Jennifer Imbler and lit by Lorna Darelius. Several platforms
and steps break up and isolate the action in interesting ways. The best effect
are three strips of white material that run up tracks on the rear wall, draped,
shifted and variously lit for subtle reflections of the emotions played out
in each number.
Songs for a New World is far from a perfect piece of theater: Most numbers
are self-contained, so the transitions tend to be disjointed: The zigzag
path from the zany humor of "Surabaya Santa" to the lovely, heartfelt "Christmas
Lullaby" followed by the frantic rat-a-tat energy of "King of the World"
is more disconcerting than satisfying.
But Jason Robert Brown's compositions showed the promise he has realized
in subsequent work, and the songs are excellent vehicles for the CCM performers,
who are just about the same age the composer was when he dreamed of his own
new world. Songs for a New World repeated the breathless promise Shakespeare's
Miranda saw in "beauteous mankind" from a very contemporary perspective,
brought to life at CCM in the show's brief run, May 1-3.