October 27, 1995

Reviewed by ERIC GRODE

Anyone bemoaning the current state of musical theatre should head down to the WPA Theatre.  Quick.  Jason Robert Brown is 25 years old, and he has a new revue called Songs for a New World playing there for the next two weeks.  The show isn’t perfect, but moments are awfully close to it, and his few missteps come, not from playing it safe, but rather from reaching too far.

Brown has clearly learned from his (recent) elders.  He manages to combine the tuneful accessibility of Alan Mencken [sic[ with the probing introspection of Stephen Sondheim, a combination that should prove irresistible in a full-fledged book musical.  Here the revue style tantalizes, giving several glimpses at Brown’s gifts without placing them in any overarching context.

The able cast of four – composed of affable Brooks Ashmanskas, sublime Andrea Burns, versatile Jessica Molaskey, and barn-burning Billy Porter – bounces around from gospel to ballads to funk to character numbers.  At his worst (a treacly Betsy Ross number and a funk number unable to withstand the messages thrust upon it), Brown is always interesting; at his best (Mrs. Claus’ torch song, “Surabaya-Santa” stands out), he looms as a possible bridge between the old-style show-stoppers and the more recent character studies.  You tap your toes while thinking long and hard about what you’re watching.  The kid is good.

Daisy Prince makes a capable Off-Broadway directing debut, balancing the wildly disparate musical and singing styles.  Brown leads an extremely able five-piece orchestra.  (In one ill-advised nod to ego, Brown is positioned on his own level of the set and chimes in during the last song.)  Stephan Olson’s playful set and Craig Evans’ nimble lighting help flesh out the songs.

This is an evening of moments:  Porter’s plaintive gospel prayer early in the first act.  The company’s soaring harmonies in “Flying Home.” And Burns following the aforementioned Mrs. Claus number with a simple, understated, gorgeously sung “Christmas Lullaby” that announces the arrival of a desperately needed new voice in musical theatre song-writing.

songs for a new world