Tuesday, February 01, 2000

                    Brown's promise is on
                    parade again

                    Robert Cushman
                    National Post

                    SONGS FOR A NEW WORLD
                    The Church at
                    Berkeley, 315
                    Queen St. E.,

                    One of the merits of Parade, the short-lived New York show that was
                    Livent's last book musical, was that it gave a platform to a new young
                    composer-lyricist, Jason Robert Brown. Brown was known previously
                    only for an even shorter-lived but well-noted off-Broadway piece, Songs
                    for a New World.

                    A talented and enterprising new company called Color
                    and Light gave it a 10-day showing in Toronto; it closed
                    on Saturday but should be brought back. It was a
                    promising work when new; there is now the added
                    interest that its promise has been fulfilled.

                    Brown's writing was to take a great step forward in
                    Parade, partly because that musical's fable of injustice in
                    the Deep South gave him a solid narrative springboard. In
                    Songs from a New World he has to create story,
                    characters and social setting all by himself; and to do it
                    afresh, 16 times over. The show is one of those staged
                    song-cycles in which previously unperformed composers
                    show off their existing wares and try to impose a theme on

                    The masters of this form are the team of Richard Maltby
                    Jr. and David Shire, whose anthology-revues are major
                    influences here. (Their best-known show, Starting Here
                    Starting Now, actually includes a song called New World
                    Coming.) The predominant tone of the genre is optimistic
                    urban angst; characters bitch and kvetch and fall very
                    self-consciously in and out of love, but they do so to
                    bracing musical rhythms that at least suggest that life
                    might be worth living, and at the end of the evening they
                    come right out in a soaring chorale and admit it.

                    Brown's lyrics don't have the observant wit of Maltby's,
                    and his music doesn't surge like the best of Shire, but he
                    upholds that wryly intense Manhattan perspective. When
                    a character sings, I'm Not Afraid of Anything you know
                    that she is terrified of everything.

                    I suppose that musicals have always gone in for uplift, but
                    once upon a time, when audiences were told to lift up
                    their heads and shout because there was going to be a
                    great day, people took the pronouncement for granted. It
                    was just one of those things; anything went.

                    In recent decades solemnity has skyrocketed, even -- or
                    especially -- in romantic songs. Love has become less an
                    emotion than a cause. Rock, folk and country -- all simple,
                    didactic forms -- have had their effect on the younger
                    composers, and Brown certainly bears the marks. His
                    best single number here is The River Won't Flow, a sort of
                    anti-gospel song: a rant against failure that's more
                    invigorating than most odes to success.

                    The new world he contemplates seems at times to be a
                    brave psychic landscape that we might all inhabit if we
                    thought positively; at other more sobering moments it's the
                    actual United States. We start with a song about
                    Columbus, desperately praying; and even after we've
                    plunged into the present we're liable to return to the War
                    of Independence, where a potential battle widow is
                    desperately sewing flags.

                    Though I had enjoyed some of the songs on CD, I was
                    unprepared for how well they worked in the theatre. There
                    is movement here both within and between the
                    characters, and Tim Fort's staging brought it subtly but
                    forcefully home. Dancing was minimal but neat, singing
                    excellent, vocal harmonies especially rich as, in this kind
                    of small-band show, they need to be. The cast boasted
                    one of the best actress-singers in Canada in Tracy
                    Michailidis, a performer with genuine poise and presence
                    of whom I certainly want to see more. She both began and
                    ended the show by making a grave entrance carrying a
                    presumably symbolic lantern, and it seemed fitting that
                    she was the only one in the cast who got to hold a candle.

                    Sharron Matthews specialized in songs about
                    materialistic ladies who come to bad ends. She stops the
                    show with Surabaya Santa, Mrs. Claus bewailing her
                    left-alone lot after the style of Brecht and Weill; the lyric
                    isn't as witty as it should be but the idea and the
                    performance carried it.

                    The men, Thom Allison and Jason Knight, were less
                    distinctive, though Allison mustered a tingling falsetto. A
                    final word for Brown's rhymes, which are unshowily good,
                    and nail his points down. Here at least he's a
                    traditionalist, and in the best way.

songs for a new world