'Songs for a New World' full of energy
Performers first-rate with variety of music
July 27, 2003

   PEORIA - A winning ensemble puts "Songs for a New World," which opened Thursday at the Apollo, over the top.

    This quartet of professionals - Bart Shatto, Dwelvan David, Cara Scher and Lara Filip - sing, dance and act with conviction and put life into these songs, which are really soliloquies or mini-dramas set to music.

    "Songs for a New World" is a revue-style show, the work of Tony Award-winning composer Jason Robert Brown, who has won something of a cult following. Thanks to "Parade," which won a Drama Desk Award in 1999, Brown has become known as one of Broadway's rising new composers.

        "Songs for a New World" is a string of musical pearls, some of which are more lustrous than others. On the positive side, there's a great variety of moods as well as styles, including pop, gospel, rock and contemporary show tunes. Many have the character of vignettes: One comic piece, for instance, is about a woman who resorts to standing on the ledge of a building in order to gain her husband's attention. Another is about a sea-bound Christopher Columbus, who seeks divine help as his crew becomes hungry and despondent with no land in sight.

        The songs with a gospel rhythm or rock beat are the strongest; the slower-moving ones struck me as trite, including one about a man and woman who separate and then discover they need one another. But whatever you might think of the music, the performances always are first-rate.

        At the top of my list is David, who has a rich, flexible voice that's able to round out low notes as well as grace those high tones. He invests the gospel pieces such as "On the Deck of the Sailing Ship" and "The River Won't Flow" with rhythm and power - so much so that it felt strange to sit quietly in the theater and not clap along. David can be poignant, too, as he sings the plight of the down-and-out in "The Steam Train."

  Shatto, the only Peoria native among the cast members, struts with a rock'n'roll swagger. He delivers "The World was Dancing," which is about a young man coming to age as his father faces mid-life crisis, with irony and humor. Scher scores comic points as the suicidal woman in "Just One Step" and is quite moving as she sings "The Flagmaker, 1775." Filip's voice, finally, soars admirably in whatever number she's in. The energy just seems to flow from her.

 Although the singers are heavily miked, not all the performers always sing quite as clearly as might be hoped. I found myself wanting to catch every word and not always being able to do so. The singers receive superb accompaniment, however, from Toby Curtwright (bass), Colt Johnson (drums) and Peter Driscoll (piano).

    In the end, "Songs for a New World" lives up to its title. The show is full of energy and passion, and it's a relief to hear contemporary-sounding songs and lyrics addressing contemporary concerns, despite the occasional navel-gazing.

  Much credit should go to the Apollo for bringing a little bit of the new Broadway into Peoria and letting the Heartland hear some of the tunes the rest of the world is already humming.

songs for a new world