Songs for a New World
Los Angeles Theatre Center
Through Sept. 13

Tony-winning songwriter Jason Robert Brown ("Parade," "The Last Five Years") is among the new breed of up-and-coming Broadway composers. Like others who have followed in the illustrious footsteps of Stephen Sondheim, Brown advances the art of musical theatre via his innovative musical styles and eloquent knack for telling stories through song. Here in its Los Angeles premiere, the 1995 Brown work "Songs for a New World" is a plotless revue consisting of 18 songs exploring the search for serenity and happiness in the turbulent modern world. Playwright's Arena director Jon Lawrence Rivera employs two distinct concepts in his attempt to imbue the diverse songs with a greater sense of unity. He provides a charming environmental setting--a funky bohemian-styled coffeehouse--in which the actors intermingle with the audience. Rivera and his co-designer Justin Huen have converted one of LATC's performing spaces into the cozy Santa Maria Café, a fictional Los Angeles hangout. Surrounded by wonderful artwork and warm furnishings and décor, the audience sits at tables, divans and easy chairs. This device works well to support the relaxing tone of Brown's gorgeous music and lyrics. Less effective is Rivera's other motif--the superfluous gimmick of setting the first act on the eve of Sept. 11, 2001, and the second act several months later. In fact, viewers who don't read the playbill will miss this point entirely. What counts here are the songs themselves, and the prodigious performers who do full justice to Brown's soaring melodies and heartfelt lyrics, which illuminate the current concerns of each character. The café server (Stephen Janji) is an aspiring painter, uncertain how to parlay his passion into a successful career. A young unmarried student (Jennifer Paz) has discovered she's pregnant and slowly develops a bond with a handsome, sensitive jock (Rick Cornette). Casey Jones portrays a woman trapped in a shallow, unhappy marriage. Each performer is musically gifted and has moments to shine. Paz's voice is particularly lovely; she's noted for her performances in "Miss Saigon" and "Flower Drum Song" and is the show's primary producer. The numbers range from comic to poignant to exuberant, and are enhanced by Kay Cole's vibrant choreography. The production glows with a spirit of optimism and faith, providing a simple but uplifting evening of entertainment.


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