Songs of Championship

Two new productions provide a fitting cap to a great fall theater season
By Beth Brogan

Songs for a New World shows Nov. 23 and 24, in Corthell Concert Hall, on the
USM Gorham campus. Call (207) 780-5555.
That Championship Season shows Nov. 29 through Dec. 15, at Portland Players
theater, in South Portland. Call (207) 799-7337.

It¹s as predictable as a maxed-out MasterCard: Before the first plastic
candy canes deck the malls, Mainers make plans for the annual pilgrimage to
productions of A Christmas Carol, The Magic of Christmas, and The

Instead, consider a less confectionery performance that might inspire
visions of more than sugar plums. Two such plays open in Portland this week:
That Championship Season, a Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, opens November 29
at the brand-new, boutique-style Bear Stage Theatre Company (in the home of
Portland Players); and musical theater students will perform Songs For a New
World, November 23 and 24, at the University of Southern Maine. The two
ambitious productions serve as fitting bookends for a fall theater season
that has been decidedly above average, with productions of plays by Shepard,
Pinter, Reza, Stoppard, Shaffer, Havel, and Williams all being performed on
local stages within the last two months.

When 25-year-old wunderkind Jason Robert (pronounce it Ro-bare) Brown
debuted Songs for a New World?Off-Broadway in 1995, critics predicted a
promising future for the composer/lyricist. Brown followed up in 1999 with
the Tony Award-winning Parade, and more recently The Last Five Years,
confirming his spot on the Great White Way. Ed Reichert, who teaches in
USM¹s musical theater program, became a fan of Brown¹s early on.

This weekend Reichert will direct a cast of 10 USM students in the Maine
premiere of Songs for a New World, which Reichert says is the perfect
introduction to a rising luminary he calls ³one of the new, great

³The writing is just genius,² Reichert, formerly an Off-Broadway actor,
says. ³He¹s already a great composer, but his greatness hasn¹t even begun.
He has the potential to be our next Stephen Sondheim.²

As Brown writes in the title song of his revue, however, ³Just when you¹re
on the verge of success, the sky starts to change, and the wind starts to
blow.² So, while each of the 17 Songs for a New World can be seen as a
separate play within a play, the characters all face similar moments in
which they must take the next step forward ‹ or retreat.

³Just One Step,² for instance, features a woman perched on a ledge 57
stories above Fifth Avenue. She¹s threatening to jump unless her husband
ends his philandering ways.

³That woman on a ledge . . . how many people have been in bad marriages or
bad relationships?² Reichert says. ³She knows her husband has been fooling

While many songs confront serious issues such as these, some take on less
dire situations. In ³Surabaya Santa,² Mrs. Claus is poised to leave her
jolly old man unless he gets off the couch.

³It¹s an awful relationship,² Reichert says. ³She¹s scorned but she keeps
taking him back. She says, ŒTake the damn pipe out of your mouth, you rat.¹
When he¹s home he sits in front of the TV watching Miracle on 34th Street.²

Reichert, a Portland theater regular whose pedigree includes the Maine State
Music Theatre, Ogunquit Playhouse, and Portland Stage Company, says it¹s
important to teach young actors and musicians about new composers such as
Brown, as well as reinforcing the classics.

³When they leave college they¹ll be moving to a bigger city, maybe, (and)
hitting the pavement with other professional actors. They¹ve got to be ready
to do it all,² he says. ³Singing Jason Robert Brown is now a requirement.
Everyone has a Jason Robert Brown song in their book, right beside Gershwin,
Rogers and Hammerstein, and Sondheim.²

Songs for a New World displays a wide variety of musical styles including
rhythm and blues, pop, gospel, and funk, which makes for great young-actor
training. In fact, Reichert is so enthusiastic about the composer, who was
once a conductor and orchestrator for Yoko Ono, that he¹s raising funds to
bring Brown to USM in April to lead master classes for the students. The day
would culminate with a public performance by the cast and Brown, who
frequently accompanies such projects on the piano. Reichert says he¹s spoken
to Brown and plans to announce the event at the opening of Songs for a New

³It would be a big deal,² he says. ³I¹ve got goosebumps talking about it. I
don¹t think they¹ve ever had a Tony Award-winning lyricist on campus.²

Right now, Reichert and his students will focus on this weekend¹s

³The most exciting thing is these kids,² he said. ³Forget Jason Robert
Brown. It¹s these 10 talented, good-looking kids in college, just singing
their hearts out for an hour and a half. It¹s about them. It¹s their

Elizabeth Brogan can be reached at

songs for a new world