Baltimore City Paper

The Singers, Not the Songs
Discovering a New World in Westminster
By Jack Purdy

Songs for a New World
By Jason Robert Brown
At Theatre on the Hill (Western Maryland College, Westminster) through Aug. 11

The all-but-extinct art form called "revue" used to be the American musical theater's prime training ground. Young, eager songwriters and performers would whip together plotless shows of unrelated musical numbers and then mount them, with minimal staging, in small theaters or nightclubs--making pennies but sharpening their talent and maybe, just maybe, getting discovered.

While the halcyon days of revue pretty much ended with the coming of television, there's a built-in nostalgia for it among performers. Which explains why Jason Robert Brown's Songs for a New World has become a cult fave among show folk since it bowed off-Broadway in 1995, when the composer/lyricist was all of 25. As winningly staged at Theatre on the Hill in Westminster and directed by Randy White, Songs is an energetic if uneven work that veers from the sharply comedic to the frankly peculiar. But four fine young singers (two of each gender) give every moment everything they've got, just as you should in revue.

As a songwriter, Brown's surest touch is with sophisticated, humorous material bearing a definite Noo Yawk edge. The live-wire Jeanne Favara gets the show's two funniest numbers. In "Just One Step," she's a Bronx-accented wife poised on the ledge outside her penthouse apartment, rebuking her husband for his penny-pinching ways as a crowd of onlookers gathers below. In the even wittier "Surabaya-Santa," Favara plays a torchy, Dietrich-inspired Mrs. Claus moaning about the injustice of "spending every Christmas alone." Third place in the wry-melody category goes to "She Cries," sung by Nick Cartell, who gets a physical workout (and drinks a Coors Light) as he energetically explains what puts the brakes on when men try to break up with women.

But too many of the Songs for a New World are too much like sentimental old show tunes. Another Favara vehicle, the wistful "Stars and Moon," starts out promisingly enough, as a woman tells of rejecting poor-but-noble suitors by saying, "Thanks a lot/ but I'd rather have a yacht." But the tune comes to an unfortunately clichéd conclusion as the woman finds her wealthy husband but not happiness. The show's only formal duet, "I'd Give It All For You," by Cartell and the strong-voiced ingenue Julie Reiber, is a generic romantic ballad, while the closing number, "Hear My Song," has lyrics that actually begin, "Hear my song, it will help you believe in tomorrow." Well, Mr. Brown, tomorrow will come, whether we believe in it or not.

And a couple of the numbers will leave you scratching your head. "On the Deck of a Spanish Sailing Ship, 1492" gives Ryan Bergeron the dramatic challenge of playing a ship's captain (Columbus?) praying to the Lord to give his exhausted men strength. Bergeron gives the song an effective, highly dramatic reading, but you still wonder what the heck it's doing here except justifying the show's title. "The Flagmaker, 1775," performed by Favara, is presumably about Betsy Ross, but it's mostly just puzzling.

But all the vocal-ensemble work is top drawer; on about half the songs the entire company sings, offering strong harmonic interplay against the surprisingly full trio orchestrations of pianist and musical director Steve Zumbrun, bassist Adam Hopkins, and percussionist Mark Ross. The tunes in Songs for a New World are hit and miss, but the performances and production are always on target, which makes this show well worth discovering.

songs for a new world