`Songs for a New World' resound at Peddie
Wednesday, July 23, 2003

Each season, local theater companies usually revive perennial favorite musicals that they're sure will bring in audiences. It's refreshing, then, to come across a rarely performed show that had only a limited run in New York being given an excellent production in the area. This is very much the case with Jason Robert Brown's musical revue "Songs for a New World" appearing only once more, on Friday, as part of the summer season presented by the Community Arts Partnership at The Peddie School.

Described as "a collection of theater songs," "Songs for a New World" is really a disassociated assembly of 15 pieces that portray a cross-section of individuals and situations. The only drawback of this piece is its apparent desire to be held together with the common thread of all of this happening in some "New World." Quite often that isn't the case, and the collection might have been more successful if its creators hadn't tried to make these wonderfully diverse pieces fit together.

The major strength of the evening is not its ordinary physical production which places actors wearing black on a black-draped stage, but the quality of the voices and the excellence of the band. Each member of the cast - Todd Gregoire, Suzanne Houston, Peter de Mets, Kristen Umansky, Mitchell Scott Shapiro, Marla Weiner and Anthony J.M. Vitalo - performs his or her music with wonderful confidence and surety. Some of the voices would have benefited from amplification, but the singing quality is, on the whole, some of the best heard in local theater.

It's also a major credit to this ensemble that they're able to go forward in the face of adversity. At 4 p.m. on the day of the performance I attended, one of the cast members became ill. A fast rehearsal was scheduled, parts and blocking were rearranged (including the running order of the second act) and director Rick Joyce stepped in to perform in place of Britta King. It would have been difficult to tell that an integral member of the cast was missing because the polish and professional delivery of the rest of the group looked expert.

The support from the pit is marvelous as well. "The Pitbulls" are a group of musicians who specialize in musical theater; this is evident from the quality of their playing. There is some challenging music in this show and The Pitbulls deliver a strong performance which never wavers. The six-member group includes Larry Rothweiler, Carl Strotz, Dennis Farrelly, Dimitri, Dan Patak and Jeff Beyert. It's such a joy to hear music played so well.

The songs range from sweeping ballads, such as "A New World" and "Stars and the Moon," to some wonderful character pieces, such as "I'm Not Afraid" where a housewife and mother discusses her life as she folds laundry. There's also a wonderfully comic lament by the latest Mrs. Claus in "Surabaya Santa."

Joyce, as director, has staged the evening intelligently and effectively; however, the black-on-black approach is rather somber and bland, especially under Marilyn Anker's often dim lighting design. This, however, is a minor quibble.

Sadly, there is only one more performance of "Songs for a New World" at the comfortably air-conditioned Mount Burke Theatre on the campus of The Peddie School. It's appearing in repertory with "The Spitfire Grill," another new musical which had its start locally at the George Street Playhouse. This weekend is the last weekend for both, but either show is sure to be just the ticket for an adventurous theatergoer who wants something different.

"Songs for a New World," Friday, 8 p.m., Mount Burke Theatre on the campus of The Peddie School in Hightstown. Tickets are $10, and seating is reserved. (609) 490-7550 or (www.peddie.org/capps).