May 10, 2002, 1:46PM

Masquerade to present Brown's 'Songs for a New World'
Copyright 2002 Houston Chronicle

Phillip Duggins and his Masquerade Theatre continue to champion the work of Jason Robert Brown, one of the musical theater's brightest young writing talents.

Following its critically acclaimed Houston premiere of Brown's Tony-winning Parade, Masquerade this week opens the area premiere of the composer-lyricist's Songs for a New World, which premiered in 1995 at off-Broadway's WPA Theatre.

In contrast with the epic drama of Parade, Songs is an intimate revue -- more specifically a song cycle. Each song portrays a character at a moment of crisis.

As Brown has described it, it's the moment "of hitting the wall and having to make a choice, take a stand, or turn around and go back."

One takes place on the deck of a Spanish ship sailing to what was thought to be the edge of the world in 1492. Another happens on the ledge of a skyscraper 57 stories above Fifth Avenue. One expresses the feelings of a mother whose son is at war. One portrays a young man who sees the basketball as his ticket out of the ghetto. Another depicts a woman who chooses a loveless marriage for wealth and security, then yearns for the road not taken.

Spanning a range of contemporary styles, the score demonstrates the intelligence, passion and driving energy of Brown's songwriting style.

Brown is one of a handful or so of young composers touted as the great hope for carrying the musical theater into the new century.

Among the others are Adam Guettel (Floyd Collins), Michael John LaChiusa (Hello Again, The Wild Party), Jeanine Tesori (Violet) and Ricky Ian Gordon (Dream True and the Houston Grand Opera-produced The Tibetan Book of the Dead). Tony-winning Broadway star Audra McDonald has championed their work in her albums and concerts.

Despite collectively creating an impressive body of work, they generally have had difficulty reaching a wider audience -- especially as Broadway producers (and audiences) often seem more interested in shows built around pre-sold pop songs of yesteryear, such as the current Tony nominee Mamma Mia!

Tesori may be bucking that trend with Thoroughly Modern Millie, which came out at the head of the Tony pack with 11 nominations on Monday and -- despite mixed reviews -- may yet turn into a major hit. Tesori wrote music and lyrics for the mostly new stage version. It uses two songs from the 1967 film.

Brown's latest, The Last Five Years, is an all-new two-character musical about a young couple whose marriage is ending, looking back at their time together. It drew good reviews off-Broadway earlier this season -- but alas, closed last week.

Will Masquerade's 2002-2003 season include The Last Five Years? Or Houston premieres from other up-and-coming composers?

Watch this space.

Songs for a New World opens Thursday and plays through June 1. Performances are at 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays and Mondays, 3 p.m. Sundays. For tickets, call 713-861-7045.

songs for a new world