Full of Hope
CCM revue Songs for a New World presents an array of stories and emotions

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 first act.

 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.