Songs for a New World
Presented by Colour and Light Productions at The Church at Berkeley, Toronto
January 22nd 2000

Review by Stephen Farrow (Graduate Centre for Study of Drama, University of Toronto)

    It’s perhaps fitting that the Canadian premiere of Jason Robert Brown’s Songs for a New World is taking place in a church; after all, the songs that make up this unusually accomplished 1995 revue primarily depict characters who are struggling to find a clear course through the pitfalls of everyday life. The sixteen major musical pieces that make up Songs for a New World are essentially dramatic monologues set to music, sung by characters from various points through history – ‘On the Deck of a Spanish Sailing Ship, 1492’ gives voice to the fears of a terrified group of travellers on a journey to the New World; ‘King of the World’ shows an incarcerated political leader trying to make sense of his downfall; ‘I’m Not Afraid of Anything’ is the story of a young woman summoning the courage to leave her husband and children. Brown’s lyrics are by turns touching, acutely observant, mordantly funny, and even in places quite deeply moving, and his music blends a diverse range of influences, encompassing jazz, gospel, folk-rock, Sondheim, and even Billy Joel, into a cohesive, powerful and extremely accomplished whole. This is a stunning contemporary theatre score; it’s a shame that it isn’t always well served by Tim Fort’s production.

    The production has its good moments – Kerry Gage supplies some attractive choreography, staging ‘The River Won’t Flow’ as a standoff between two homeless men and a pair of apparently successful women who pass them in the street, and making spectacular use of the height of the stage for the moves she gives Thom Allison’s inner-city basketball player in ‘The Steam Train’. Fort’s set – an assortment of crates, orange-boxes, barrels and ladders, hung with fairy-lights which extend out around the auditorium, is effective enough, allowing the production to shift from location to location with each successive song with the minimum of fuss. Too often, though, his staging of individual numbers is excessively fussy, working too hard at creating ‘scenes’ that don’t always fit their accompanying songs. Having Jason Knight sing part ‘She Cries’ to two women in a bar makes the song come over as a misogynistic kvetch; the staging makes the lyrics appear to be simply misanthropic, rather than the product of a specific experience. And I couldn’t work out why, halfway through ‘I’d Give It All For You’, a touching ballad about a couple who split up but ultimately end up together, Tracy Michailidis presented Knight with a cuddly armadillo. It’s a nice idea to sit the audience at candlelit tables, but having the performers hold lit candles during the first two numbers made the beginning of the show seem like some kind of contemporary Christian service, an impression reinforced by the church setting.

    The performances, too, are mixed. On the plus side, Noreen Waibel’s musical direction is assured, and the band – she’s joined by George Kozub on bass and Tom Jestadt on drums – are sensational. Thom Allison sings his numbers with enormous style, power and assurance; he has a terrific voice, and his rendition of ‘Flying Home’ is the show’s musical highlight. Jason Knight’s material is less showy than Allison’s, but he, too, gives a fine performance, despite being hampered by some of Fort’s more misconceived staging ideas. The two women are less successful. Tracy Michailidis has a beautiful voice, but she tends to act her numbers on a single note, and she completely misses the self-deception at the heart of ‘I’m Not Afraid of Anything’. Sharron Matthews pushes too hard where a more subtle approach might be more appropriate, and she doesn’t really have the range for some of her songs, so that she’s sometimes undercut by the music. All four struggle against Marjorie MacDonald’s sound design, which tends to obliterate the lyrics (loud crackling was audible through the show from one of the speakers).

    This production certainly makes a good case for Songs for a New World as a piece of theatre – the material is so strong that it’s worth seeing despite the uneven cast and sometimes problematic direction. Everybody involved is obviously working from the very best of intentions, and some of the show works very well indeed. But some of it doesn’t. While there is much to admire here, the sometimes incongruous details in the staging and the uneven performances combine to prevent the Canadian premiere of Songs for a New World from being quite the event that it should have been. The material is stunning; unfortunately, the production never quite lives up to it.

songs for a new world