UMD students shine in sassy `Songs'

By Chris Casey
News Tribune staff writer

Forget that it's a frozen world outside. A ``new world,'' a siren-call of a
show, beckons from a small theater at the University of Minnesota Duluth.

Stage II, the low-profile student-run arm of UMD Theatre, is mounting Jason
Robert Brown's ``Songs for a New World.''

Low profile, shmofile.

This inspired show is too jaunty, too sassy, too sexy, too funny and too
rockin' to lurk in the shadows of a frigid December. Bundle up and go see
``Songs for a New World'' or miss out on what should rank as one of the
finest, and surely the gutsiest, productions at UMD this season.

It starts with the material. ``Songs'' may be a musical revue, but there's a
gritty New York City skyline of texture, moods and attitude swirling through
this 16-song cycle, Brown's stunning theatrical composing debut.

It's a show about plunging into the high-stakes arenas of life -- love,
ambition, marriage, parenthood, war -- and staunching the urge to flee from
the fray.

And talk about high stakes. Not only did Stage II embark on its first
musical, but Brown, the composer, was seated in the audience during
Wednesday's preview performance in the intimate Dudley Experimental Theatre.
Brown, winner of a 1999 Tony Award for his scoring of ``Parade,'' is a
composer whose talents have earned comparisons to Stephen Sondheim.

Despite that added pressure, the cast, apparently embracing the show's
boundaries-be-damned spirit, seemed to say ``Bring it on!''

Anchored by the stellar keyboard playing of musical director Anthony Sofie,
and guided with panache by first-time director Andrew Bennett (both UMD
seniors in theater), there were few missteps in this compelling series of
musical vignettes.

Along the way to creating a cohesive whole, not only did the show gather
strength, but each performer received equal time to shine. The four leads --
soprano Jessica Paschke, alto Kathryn Helbacka, tenor A.J. Converse and
baritone Martin Nieves -- generally took full advantage of the opportunity.

Bennett used an eight-member chorus to well-timed and colorful effect.
Streetwalker floozies spiced up ``The River Won't Flow,'' dribbling
hoopsters fueled ``The Steam Train'' and an ethereal gathering of seraphim
gave aural lift to ``Flying Home.''

>From the staging, spare and dramatic, to the choreography, brisk and
creative, every choice proved true to the material. The vocal talents of
chorus members varied greatly, but the energy of their performance,
especially when grouped as a whole, was stirring.

When this show wasn't playing to your eye -- contrasts in costuming and time
periods accented ``The World Was Dancing'' and ``The Flagmaker'' -- it was
tugging at your heart. Often it was doing both at once.

Both female leads made the most of the show's comedic songs. While teetering
on a skyscraper ledge, Helbacka sang ``Just One Step'' in all its New
Yawker-ese glory. She brilliantly transformed into a jilted drama queen,
fuming over her tightwad husband one instant and quivering about her dire
predicament the next.

Paschke's sultry vamping stole the show early in the second act. As if her
hair tosses, hip swivels and booze glugs weren't humorous enough, she
snarled every punch line in ``Surabaya-Santa'' -- a song about the latest in
a line of neglected, embittered Mrs. Clauses -- with aplomb.

Paschke also shined in the aptly titled ``I'm Not Afraid of Anything,'' the
most demanding female solo in the show. Expressions of anger,
disappointment, determination and vulnerability whisked across Paschke's
face as her dulcet soprano dipped and soared. She also delivered a tender
rendition of ``Christmas Lullaby.''

The male soloists also had their moments. Converse commanded ``The Steam
Train,'' ``King of the World'' and ``Flying Home,'' his smooth vocals and
self-assured gestures punching up the show's emotional heft.

Nieves, meanwhile, was a bit stiff at times and his voice struggled to meet
the staggering demands of ``She Cries.'' But his baritone capably served
``The World Was Dancing'' and ``I'd Give It All For You,'' a touching duet
with Helbacka.

The soulful power of the last two songs alone -- ``Flying Home'' and ``Hear
My Song'' -- is easily worth the ticket price.

songs for a new world