May 21, 2002, 9:19AM

Masquerade produces a `New World' with potential

                           "Promising" seems the most suitable description for
                           Songs for a New World, the revue making its local bow
                           at Masquerade Theatre.

                           Presented off-Broadway in 1995, Songs introduced
                           Jason Robert Brown as a bright young composer/lyricist
                           whose efforts would be worth following. That promise
                           was fulfilled with the 1998 premiere of Parade, the
                           ambitious musical that marked Brown's Broadway debut
                           and won him a Tony for his score, one of the finest in
                           recent years.

                           Experiencing Songs after the more-accomplished and
                           unified Parade may feel anticlimactic. As a loose-knit
                           assemblage of Brown's early songs, the revue is
                           nowhere near as powerful as Parade.

                           That show, given a scaled-down yet potent Houston
                           premiere by Masquerade earlier this year, showed what
                           Brown can do when he has a strong story and theme.
                           Songs offers a more informal demonstration of Brown's
                           knack for melding aspects of contemporary pop, folk,
                           gospel and other genres with the traditional musical
                           theater delineation of character and situation.

                           The songs are a mixed bag, with little to connect them
                           beyond the general theme: moments of crisis and
                           decision. Yet while a few strain for their effects or lapse
                           into generic New Age sentiments, most hold the interest
                           through distinctive qualities of their music or ideas.

                           The opening, A New World, sung by characters braving
                           uncharted waters (it also recurs to bridge later
                           numbers), frames the evening nicely with its expansive
                           melody and message. The River Won't Flow gives
                           voice to the frustrations of society's dispossessed. King
                           of the World, a convict's aria, rails with thwarted power
                           and lost opportunity. The Flagmaker, 1776, depicts an
                           anguished mother, whose son is at war, pouring her
                           heartache into the task of stitching a flag.

                           Stars and the Moon -- one of Brown's best-known
                           songs, recorded by Audra McDonald and Betty Buckley
                           -- is a woman's explanation of why she married for
                           wealth and security rather than love and adventure. The
                           World Was Dancing shows how lovers on the brink of
                           marriage wind up parting anyway, while I'd Give It All for
                           You poignantly depicts a reunion of lovers who had
                           gone their separate ways.

                           The comic songs are ironic: Just One Step, in which a
                           neglected wife tries to get her husband's attention by
                           attempting suicide and Surabaya Santa, a Kurt Weill-ish
                           take on the domestic woes of Mrs. Santa Claus.

                           The six singers demonstrate a strong commitment to
                           Brown's often-demanding music (despite the fact that a
                           couple seemed to be fighting vocal strain at Thursday's
                           opening). Their heartfelt renditions usually muster the
                           necessary vocal power.

                           Luther Chakurian projects go-for-broke energy as the
                           prisoner in King of the World and the dying soldier in
                           Flying Home. Rebekah Dahl's comic Just One Step and
                           tragic The Flagmaker are vivid character portraits in
                           song. Ilich Guardiola brings a smooth, angry strength to
                           The River Won't Flow and The Steam Train.

                           Stephanie Bradow's sturdy, confident style suits I'm Not
                           Afraid of Anything and I'd Give It All for You. Michael J.
                           Ross sings She Cries and The World Was Dancing with
                           force and remorseful intensity. Kaytha Coker conveys
                           the right sweetness and simplicity in Christmas Lullaby
                           though her Stars and the Moon may be a tad

                           Phillip Duggins' rudimentary staging could exert greater
                           punch and pizazz, though the four-person band plays
                           with spirit.

                           Songs for a New World

                           When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays and Mondays, 3
                           p.m. Sundays, through June 1

                           Where: Masquerade Theatre, 1537 N. Shepherd

                           Tickets: $20-$25; 713-861-7045

songs for a new world