"Songs For A New World"
Presented by SpeakEasy Stage Company

When Life Is Different Than You Planned

Each season, SpeakEasy Stage Company includes in its schedule a concert showcasing the work of one particular composer, lyricist or composing team.

For this year¹s InConcert presentation, SpeakEasy's Artistic Director Paul Daigneault chose Jason Robert Brown's Songs For A New World. Rather than SpeakEasy's usual home of The Boston Center for the Arts, Daignault took over The Copley Theatre for two performances on November 11 and 12.

The only negative thing I can tell you about it is that there were only two performances.

Songs For A New World is really a revue incorporating any number of songs Brown has written for past projects and purposes. For those who may not be familiar with his name, Jason Robert Brown is the Tony Award winning composer/lyricist of Parade -- a show which did not get a decent run, but did draw national attention. Brown is now considered one of the new voices in the American musical theater. His next show, The Last Five Years opens in Chicago next year before moving on to Lincoln Center.

Take all these wonderful songs, given life by an exceptionally talented group of our OWN singers and actors, and you¹ve got a vibrant, emotional evening that, in the case of last weekend, was a true delight.

Abounding with intelligent lyrics, Brown's style is that of storyteller. You won't find a lot of sappy pop ballads here. Each number is a character scene that conveys a fully fleshed out story.

The opening number, "A New World" sets up the thread which strings all the songs together. In Brown¹s own words, it¹s all about hitting the wall and having to make a choice. Do you stand, do you fall, do you turn around and go back, or do you press on.

Val Sullivan was the first of the 16-person ensemble cast to hit the stage and she did so with a soaring power that filled the theater. It was merely a precursor for an evening of high points.

As the songs unfold, the greater theme becomes one of survival. Everyday people facing everyday challenges, and how each deals with it. Street-wise kids, fathers, children, scorned spouses, unwed mothers, war, birth and death -- all are covered.

The core idea is not so different from Frank Wildhorn¹s "This Is The Moment," from Jekyll & Hyde. It¹s just that while Wildhorn cranked the idea into a one-dimensional sugary pop turn, Brown has taken more than a dozen situations and expressed the same motto, only without ever actually hitting you over the head with it. His touch is far more cultivated and he never repeats a scenario twice. And rather than shoving the message in your face, he lets you discover it all on your own. He respects his audience enough to know that they¹ll ³get it² -- through superior storytelling.

It¹s hard to pick out the best of the best because virtually every sequence was outstanding. Sean Roper was great in the gospel flavored "On The Deck of A Spanish Sailing Ship;" Leigh Barrett was funny and frantic as the suicidal wife in "Just One Step;" Val Sullivan again soared in "I'm Not Afraid Of Anything;" Philip Woods and Brian Robinson were a formidable pair in "The River Won't Flow;" Jose Delgado was raw and true in ³Steam Train;² Bridget Beirne delivered a sweet "Christmas Lullaby;" David Foley delivered an impassioned "She Cries" (adding a tremendous emotional button to the song with a simple but penetrating final glance); and Kerry Dowling was intense and commited as a woman waiting for the return of a soldier in "The Flagmaker, 1775."

The song that has already caught on among cabaret performers is "Stars and Moon," which was given a thoughtful and genuine reading by Stacey Cervellino.

The funniest spot in the show went to Belle Linda Halpern with "Surabaya Santa." The song was a chance for A: the composer to write a biting, scathing satire on all things Santa, and B: the singer to show why she's been touted as Boston's best singing actor. In character, she is Mrs. Claus, yearning for the attention of her man. However, she does it like a German Countess swathed in a black velvet cape, much in the style of Kurt Weill (who, of course, wrote "Surabaya Johnny"). Again, Halpern is a perfect choice for the send-up as her usual cabaret show is in the Brecht/Weill style.

Kudos also go to the fine musicians who were in top form: Julia Liu on keyboards, Rob Simring on bass, Kevin Burke on drums, Pieter Struyk on percussion and Paul Katz leading them all on the piano.

Jason Robert Brown has created a wonderful world. Those who were at The Copley Theatre last weekend to witness a portion of it were indeed fortunate.

Until next time --
R. J. Donovan
Theater Guy

songs for a new world