October 27-29, 1995

Theater review
WPA Theatre, New York
Through Nov. 5

By Michael Adams

Anyone interested in glimpsing the future of the American musical theater would do well to catch this new revue, a gathering of the music and lyrics of Jason Robert Brown.

Brown, a mere 25, is well on his way to becoming a major player (his future projects include a collaboration with no less than Harold Prince).  And although his songs have been performed by a number of cabaret performers, this marks his Off-Broadway bow as composer-lyricist.

The songs – some of them close to miniature plays – capture a wide variety of moods, from sweetly contemplative to sturdily inspirational.  The ambitious opening number takes us on nothing less than Columbus’s voyage to the New World – and it’s a stunner.

Unlike most of his contemporaries, Brown has not been worshiping slavishly at the Sondheim altar.  Clearly, he has been listening to Maltby and Shire (“Closer Than Ever”) and cabaret artists like Amanda McBroom, as well as heavy doses of gospel, rhythm ‘n’ blues, and folk-rock.  There is melody and invention to spare here, with lyrics both penetrating and precise.

These are songs to pierce the heart and raise the rafters.  (Fractured relationships and social injustice seems to be foremost on Brown’s mind.) He even has comic flair.  “Surabaya Santa,” which gives us Mrs. Claus as Brecht and Weill might have imagined her, is close to a classic.

Prince’s daughter Daisy directed, and she moves the proceedings seamlessly from mood to mood without drawing attention away from the material.  She has also coaxed delectable performances from the young cast: Brooks Ashmanskas has charm to spare, and Andrea Burns a limpid vulnerability.

As for Jessica Molaskey and Billy Porter, each has occasion to stop the show.  Porter’s passionate tenor is alone worth the price of admission.  A superb five-piece band is led by Brown himself.

A cavil: Without spoken introductions or program notes, it’s difficult to know the provenance of each song, and some suffer for lack of context.

Yet however they were conceived, Brown’s songs reveal a mature, fertile sensibility that deserves nurturing.  The evening provides a most impressive showcase for all concerned.

songs for a new world