By Rita Moran, Arts writer

March 10, 2005

Jason Robert Brown's "Songs for a New World" is a good fit for the Rubicon Theatre Company. The award-winning composer's revue taps wellsprings of hope and courage, countering storm clouds of doubt.

Rubicon founders Karyl Lynn Burns and James O'Neill stepped into their future in 1998, taking the company's name from the historic moment when Caesar crossed the Rubicon River and set his path toward an irreversible destiny. Like "New World," Rubicon surges ahead, building on dreams fortified by talent and hard work, and encouraged by major Southland theater awards for its past season.

To create the informal setting for the musical, director Jon Lawrence Rivera conceived a major transformation of the theater into The Santa Maria Cafe.

Gone are the rows of padded pews. In came new flooring arranged in squares like a giant checkerboard, a variety of seating levels, comfy couches, barstools and cocktail tables. Ornate chandeliers hang overhead. Stained-glass windows are revealed.

Artists Gerd Koch of Ventura and Dana Battaglia of Santa Barbara are represented in generous displays of their work arranged along the theater's walls, his paintings large and bold, hers focusing with delicate clarity on floral aspects of nature.

Ideal setting

A circling staircase leads to an upper level where musicians provide a continuous flow of rhythms, melody and moods. The theater's amazing revamp establishes an ideal setting for Brown's gem of a cabaret show.

The quartet of performers of Brown's contemporary lyrics and multi-layered music seize an audience's attention…they can, and do, with talent to spare.

Anthony Manough powers the show through his solos and as a dynamic part of the ensemble. With a voice that can whisper or shout, and acting skills that are deep and wide-ranging, Manough (pronounced MAY-no) is the central figure in a strong cast.

"The New World," the show's introductory song, finds Manough talking of a promised land "just across the river" in its haunting lyrics: "A new world calls across the ocean / A new world calls across the sky / A new world whispers in the shadows / Time to fly, time to fly."

Manough etches a soul-wrenching experience in "On the Deck of a Spanish Sailing Ship, 1492," in which the trauma that taunted Columbus and his sailors in their meaningful but misdirected venture, sick and dying while supplies dwindled, is broadened by composer Brown to suggest other terrifying voyages and cargo, such as frightened slaves and desperate immigrants.

The song is an impassioned prayer asking the Lord to "save my soul ... take my heart ... give me light."

In "The Steam Train," Manough becomes a young man possessed by the possibility of rising up from the ghetto into the high-powered world of sports ("You don't know me but you will"), only to be dashed in the later "King of the World," in which he anguishes from prison over his fall from grace: "Let me remind them of my promise."

Finally, Manough radiates joy in "Flying Home": "I'm flying home straight into your arms. ... Take my hand, I'm ready, Father."

For Brown, the particular stands in for the universal and bonds of time are breached.

The biting, passionate "The Flagmaker, 1775" is delivered with searing force by Cindy Benson, meditating on the wars fought for the flags and the men who return from fields running red with blood in coffins draped with red, white and blue.

She's clearly not just talking about the American Revolution, but the world's never-ending battles. As she stitches her flags, she sings, "The wise woman does what she knows / If it's fighting she fights, if it's sewing she sews."

Funniest songs

Benson also gets the show's funniest songs, even though they're touched with sadness. In "Just One Step" she's on a rampage against her ex, Murray, and the fur coat he gave her as a guilt gift. All the while she is delivering the diatribe, she teeters on the staircase and balcony, until she finally takes the plunge, sliding down a metal pole.

For someone who's playing the "older" woman in the cast, Benson has amazing energy, agility and humor packaged into her almost frail-looking frame.

In "Stars and the Moon," she tells about a string of marriages after she turned down her first true love, who offered her the celestial bodies.

She turned him down, accepting yachts and Champagne instead. She leads a whirlwind life of travel and extravagance, then stops to ponder that she'll never have the moon.

Benson even takes the audience with her as she discusses the problems of being married to Nick in "Surabaya-Santa." There are all those trips around the world, leaving her behind with the elves. Worse yet, "I saw you look at Blitzen long and lovingly / The way you used to look at me."

A serene and pensive Joan Almedilla plays the young woman in the cast, effective throughout with her lovely voice and ability to project real lives and emotions. The song that brings a beautiful stillness to the show is "Christmas Lullaby," in which a pregnant woman wonders about her circumstances: "... And I will be like Mother Mary with a blessing in my soul / And the future of the world inside of me." Paired with her is Kevin Odekirk, the young man who is unable to commit to his love, one of several manifestations of his amiable immaturity.

The singer-actors are individually miked, enabling the cast to be heard anywhere in the theater while maintaining balance with the mighty trio of musicians led from the piano by music director Brent Crayon, with Jeff Novack strumming bass and Greg Inverso handling drums and percussion.

The singers also get in a few licks as dancers, jumping up on a long, solid coffee table to sing and sway. They're masters at singing, acting, dancing and bonding with the audience. The atmosphere is so close up and personal that as the evening progressed Santa Maria Cafe's customers were bestowing hearty handshakes and pats on the back on the performers.

"Songs for a New World" crackles with life thanks to the genius of Jason Robert Brown and the ability of its actor-singers to portray real situations and emotions as if they had just emerged.

songs for a new world