'Cabaret revue is moving, prescient'
By Misha Berson
Seattle Times theater critic
"Songs for a New World"
By Jason Robert Brown. Produced by Raggedy Z Productions & Music Theatre
Works. Wednesdays through Saturdays through Oct. 12 at Crepe de Paris,
Rainier Square, Seattle. $21/show only; $35-$48/show with dessert or dinner.
When composer Jason Robert Brown wrote the song "The New World," he could
not have known what resonance it would have on Sept. 11, 2002. Hearing the
opening tune in Brown's cabaret revue "Songs for a New World" on Wednesday
night at Crepe de Paris, during a special performance for local
firefighters, police and flight attendants, it seemed like it was written
just last week ‹ certainly within the past year.
The notions of a frightening new world that "crashes down like thunder" and
"shatters the silence," and of being "suddenly a stranger/ in some
completely different land," don't come across as mere metaphors. These are
images and sensations many Americans have shared recently.
But "Songs for a New World" actually premiered in 1995, in a short
Off-Broadway run that brought young Brown attention and led to his second
major effort: composing the Tony Award-winning score for the Broadway
Brown is now considered one of the brighter lights in a new generation of
music-theater composers. "Songs for a New World" established his
compositional sophistication and theatrical facility, and though an immature
work in some ways it's still musically impressive, and at times it's both
moving and prescient.
Directed smoothly by Bill Berry, an ingratiating quartet of singer-actors
give their all to this cycle of a dozen-plus song-stories. The numbers range
from historical musings to ambivalent love ballads and jazz-gospel rousers;
the characters singing them include a 15th-century Spanish sea captain,
modern lovers and a striving ghetto basketball player.
The thematic thread that binds the selections is the quest for and necessity
of change, in the face of life's sudden "earthquakes" and unforeseen flash
Each song is its own vignette, and among the strongest are the basketball
hopeful's rocking anthem, performed fervently by Ty Willis ("The Steam
Train"); a duet for reconciling lovers, sung winningly by Anna Lauris and
Louis Hobson ("I'd Give it All For You"); and Ann Evans' emphatic rendition
of "Surabaya-Santa," a clever parody of Kurt Weill's "Surabaya Johnny" sung
by a very disgruntled Mrs. S. Claus.
The tunes about youthful romantic ambivalence have flashes of Sondheim-esque
verbal facility, and their shifting tempos and vocal ranges are handled well
by the fresh-faced, sure-voiced Hobson and appealing Lauris.
But lyrically, Brown can get bogged down in post-adolescent navel-gazing,
and (at the show's end) in gloppy optimism. And his attempt at capturing
middle-age married angst (in "Just One Step," a comic ditty about a
threatened suicide) bottoms out.
Still, there is enough talent on display here to make "Songs for a New
World" a worthwhile experience and sometimes a stirring one.
One important note, though: the show's two-man band needs to pay stricter
attention to keeping their volume from overwhelming the singers and songs.
songs for a new world