Our Rating:    B-

'Songs for A New World' could use more finesse

By Lisa Bornstein, Rocky Mountain News
August 16, 2002

It's been several years since composer Jason Robert Brown was first fixed
with the appellation "promising." The time has come, after a number of only
somewhat successful creations, for him to drop the "promising" and claim the
title "great."

When and if Brown, the composer of Parade, does that, the musical revue
Songs for a New World will serve as a peek at his early process. Ostensibly
a song cycle of distinct moments of decision in American life, it is more a
loose collection that feels like songwriting exercises he used to develop
his craft.

Phoned-In Productions and Bas Bleu Theatre Company should take a bow for
choosing such a little-heard piece instead of the usual retreads that
constitute summer theater. Brown's music is worth hearing and considering,
and this production serves it well - in most instances.

Five singers render the songs in varying combinations, accompanied by a fine
three-person band. Husband-and-wife team Britta and Travis Risner
respectively serve as director and musical director as well as performing,
and while a creative polish frequently surfaces, at times a bit more
distance would have benefited these two.

With its narrow brick room and Peter Muller's stylish lighting, Bas Bleu
takes on a cabaret atmosphere. The five singers enter separately, containing
their own small scenarios for Brown's opening number, The New World, a
beautiful tune repeated a few too many times through the show.

Whether it's Britta Risner or choreographer Bryan Bell, there are some
terrific stagings, beginning with Deck of a Spanish Ship - 1492, in which
Josh Grussendorf takes the lead and the four others sing chorus, gently
bending forward and back as if moving heavy oars at sea.

Brown's songs move from '70s romance (Stars and the Moon) to historical
plaint (Flagmaker 1775) to outright comedy. Alison Mueller is the show's
vocal ringer, and although she does a bit too much soulful gazing into space
on serious songs, the youthful redhead makes a terrific older Jewish woman
as she threatens to jump off the balcony on the comic Just One Step.

Britta Risner brings a nice soprano to the cast, and Travis Risner and Bell
also sing well. But Grussendorf is both vocally miscast and below par for
his songs. His tenor is as thin as a wire about to snap, and he never grasps
the funk or soul of The Steam Train, a youthful boast by a boy whose only
salvation is a basketball career.

And while individual songs deliver powerful moments, group harmonies
literally fall flat. By performing in the cast, the Rittners may not be able
to hear which voice is missing the boat. Whoever it is, those slipped
harmonies create a few painful moments where an exquisite blend is required.

Lisa Bornstein is the theater critic. Bornsteinl@RockyMountain or
(303) 892-5101

songs for a new world