November 6-12, 1995


Jason Robert Brown’s resume is dotted with names far more recognizable than his own: He’s been a musical director for Yoko Ono and Michael John LaChiusa, and currently is arranging a score for William Finn and composing a new musical to be directed by Harold Prince.  His debut foray into his own spotlight comes with “Songs for a New World,” a musical revue that shows Brown to be a capable songwriter of the Alan Menken school: commercial show-tune pop with palatable sentiment and easy-to-take melody.

Brown’s craftsmanship, sturdy if not particularly inventive, even withstands director Daisy Prince’s hopelessly cliched staging.  “Songs for a New World” seems to contain more cabaret convention and piano-bar posing than any one revue should have to withstand.  The four young singer-actors oversell every song, often with a faux-gospel fervor and usually while staring wide-eyed at the horizon of the WPA Theater’s exit.  There’s more mugging on Brooks Ashmanskas’ face than in all five boroughs of New York City combined.

Overlooking the production itself (its limited 3 1/2-week run included 2 1/2 weeks of previews and closed Nov. 5), Brown’s songs could function well in a better light.  With some lyric adjustment, “I’m Not Afraid of Anything” could be sung by any of Disney’s recent cartoon heroines, while “She Cries” and “I’d Give It All For You” are suitable love songs in the adult-pop format.  “Flying Home,” a fine midtempo anthem, would be better served by a simpler delivery.

Brown’s lyrics are literate if sentimental, although here again a more scaled-down arrangement might drain the sap.  “The Flagmaker, 1775,” one of two rather odd history songs (“On the Deck of a Spanish Sailing Ship, 1492” is the other) certainly isn’t helped when a giant flag unfurls right along with the tale of a seamstress’ son gone off to war.  “Just One Step,” with a darkly funny lyric about a frustrated wife about to jump off a ledge, is played for broad, silly laughs.

Sometimes, though, Brown undoes himself.  “Surabaya-Santa,” written with Kristine Zbornik, is a Kurt Weill-meets-St. Nick novelty number best left in the Christmas trunk, while “Stars and the Moon” acerbically toys with moon-June conventions before going syrupy itself.  “Songs for a New World” can save neither ditty any more than it heralds Brown’s arrival – he’s still a promise waiting to happen.

- Greg Evans

songs for a new world