SONGS FOR A NEW WORLD
Presented by: Treehouse Productions
Date: Played from July 18-22 Venue: Chapel Off Chapel
Reviewer: Venessa Paech
SONGS FOR A NEW WORLD is a piece that subverts traditional narrative structure, shrugging it off in favour of a gentle and abstract carousel ride through time, place and possibly, memory. It is a delightful and unusual show; a vast poem that has uncanny acumen, heavenly music, and theatrical vocabulary of an impressive order – intelligent and insightful lyrics that effortlessly capture the intricacies of heart and soul.
Four voices, many stories; characters who grapple with the implications of an ambiguous future expose their vulnerabilities before your eyes, struggle independently, then find unexpected strength in solidarity. Imbued in this musical ode to life is a sense of wonder and tender expectation truly lovely to watch. SONGS also has a self-awareness that does not, as you might expect, diffuse the hopefulness in the play, but rather asks the audience to invest in it on their own terms.
SONGS recent incarnation at Chapel off Chapel embodies what is so wonderful and at the same time what can be problematic about this musical, penned by talented Jason Robert Brown. The lack of clear narrative movement is not necessarily bad (some of the finest musical works created have alternative or minimalist narrative structure), but it does certainly demand more of a Director and his or her cast and crew. In such pieces it is essential each facet of the show works together to move in a clear direction – often a difficult task, but a crucial one. Director Christopher Parkers SONGS fell victim, in part, to this trap, giving its audience an awkward synthesis of individually admirable, but otherwise disparate production elements.
There is a great deal about SONGS that is excellent. Musical Director Adrian Kirk serves the score superbly, never overpowering lyrics we wanted to hear and adroitly handling the complexity of the work. Performances by all four cast members are vibrant and accomplished; their voices strong and interesting, compelling moments of truth achieved by each throughout the production. The rich material finds much texture in these capable instruments. Lighting design by Suzie Frankie and Bernadette Haldane was both understated and intuitive; it’s a shame some gorgeous lighting effects were lost because of the most dominant presence in the space – the set.
You are struck by it immediately - a rooftop, jutting out of the floor, bathed in moody silhouettes. It is beautiful, distinctive, intriguing. Ironically, it is this same attractive and stylish platform that ultimately cripples the impact of some splendid work.
Dramatically, the set and production design does work to achieve goals outlined by the director in the program notes; heightening the sense of tentative exploration and precariousness within SONGS, with characters able to literally teeter on the brink of decisions and discoveries. It gives the actors opportunity to physicalise the inner journeys of their characters - corrugated mountains to scale and darkened stairs to descend into introspection. However, the considerable height of the structure, combined with its positioning within the space and the choice of raked seating, had an unconsciously detrimental effect – distancing the performers from the audience and preventing us from surrendering wholly to the action and it’s emotional core. The finished product is therefore technically exhilarating but emotionally dislocating - a splendid and remote thing that is undeniably marvellous but frustratingly inaccessible.
Despite the fact SONGS has destination and destiny so close to it’s thematic heart, it is arguably at it’s most effective when we the audience have banished concern for that same key notion – we shouldn’t care where we’re going, nor where we end up, because we are so engaged by the life of the stories presented to us. This is of course the same discovery the characters in SONGS make (learning to embrace their forward motion sets them free) but in this rendering of the work the connection we make to the characters and their stories is never dynamic enough to kick start that effect. Possibly this outcome emerged from directorial choices – aimed at eliminating superfluous sentimentality and forcing the ideas at work into sharper focus – or perhaps it was an unplanned consequence of a set that didn’t function as originally foreseen. It wasn’t entirely clear which leads me to suspect the latter. A more intimate use of the space, still utilising the rooftop metaphor (a very appropriate choice), would have enabled the audience to connect more with the singers of SONGS, and I feel, better meet the expectations of both author and production team.
With so many praiseworthy accomplishments, the problem with the set by no means derails the evening, but it does leave the audience with a less indelible, less insistent memory of proceedings that should have them leaving breathless. Though we respect the work we’ve seen, the force of the production has been ultimately diminished. This is regrettable when you are dealing with SONGS that possess eloquence and immediacy rarely found in commercial musical theatre. Four voices. Many songs. Endless possibilities. Though showing off some extraordinary talent and technical precision, this particular production did not exploit those possibilities to their fullest. We are left lingering on the rooftop – waiting to take flight.
Still, as the full houses of folk that saw SONGS would attest; rooves aren’t all bad. For one thing, you have a clear view of the sky.
songs for a new world