The Stage 16 Aug 01

Peter Hepple

Jason Robert Brown, though virtually unknown in this county, is one of the best of the young prospects for the American musical.  Originally seen Off-Broadway in 1995, this work has had more than 80 productions since then, mainly in the States, and this staging, directed by Clive Paget, at last gives London the opportunity to gauge his exceptional quality.

Though Paul Clarke¹s minimal design, two movable staircases, each flanked with a triangle, gives it some visual appeal, the emphasis is placed strongly on the songs, in a cycle which is obviously part-autobiographical.

The theme is mainly hope, tinged with disappointment and occasional despair, introduced with a really big number which deals with the feelings of those who discovered America at the end of the 15th century.  But most of the songs are pitched at a more personal level ­ a wife on the point of leaving an unattentive husband, a young man coming to the realisation that marriage can make one stronger, and another wife who has every material thing she wanted but discovers that it is not enough.  In King of the World, we meet an athletic youth with boundless self-confidence.

But the main strength of Brown¹s writing is the depth and breadth he gives to his songs.  Unlike Sondheim, with whom he will obviously be compared, he does not dwell on life¹s smaller moments to reach painful and moving conclusions, but favours a larger scale and an acknowledgment that we are all part of a community.

This is not to say that the songs are devoid of personal emotion, or that he lacks a sense of humour.  In Surabaya-Santa he gives us a Kurt Weill parody that has wit and pace.

The four-strong company, Sarah Redmond, Golda Rosheuvel, Craig Purnell and Nigel Richards, present the material with tremendous commitment alongside their acting and singing skills, and musical director Christopher Frost is well on top of a difficult task.

songs for a new world