SONGS FOR A NEW WORLD - Theater Latte Da


  Devotees of musicals whisper the name of Jason Robert Brown in
  the same hushed tones of reverence that folks in Wisconsin reserve
  for Vince Lombardi.

  The young composer's score for the short-lived Broadway musical
  ``Parade'' won the 1999 Tony Award, thus minting him as The Future
  of American Musical Theater. That play doesn't seem
  Minnesota-bound in the near future, but Brown's first crack at musical
  theater -- a 1995 revue called ``Songs for a New World'' -- is
  available locally in a production at the Bryant-Lake Bowl.

  Theater Latte Da's staging is pleasing, both in terms of material and
  performance, but not overwhelmingly so.

  Brown's score is a pastiche of ballads, historical anthems, patter
  songs and uptempo tunes. Its musical lineage is diverse. At its best, it
  draws reference from a pair of Stephens. From Sondheim (of
  ``Sunday in the Park With George'' and ``A Little Night Music'' fame),
  he draws a fondness for minor chord play and tricky meters. From
  Schwartz (``Godspell,'' ``Pippin''), he gleans a knowing ear for a
  catchy-sounding musical hook.

  On the downside, though, Brown's music sometimes suggests a kind of
  Disney-fied homogeneity, the kind of amiable pop sound that's
  hummable but emotionally cheap. This particularly comes through in
  his lyrics, which are frequently drippy and all too often fix their
  dreamy gaze inward toward the minor angsts of upper-middle-class

  There's no dialogue in the show, so the collection of unrelated tunes
  must ride on their own strength and on that of the quartet of
  performers delivering them. Director Peter Rothstein wisely opts for a
  minimal staging that's just a shade more theatrical than one would
  find in a cabaret setting.

  In this setting, Erin Schwab glitters in a gem of a performance. Best
  known for her winning turn as the eponymous bride in ``Tony n' Tina's
  Wedding,'' Schwab here proves herself the kind of performer who
  alone is worth the price of the ticket. She fully inhabits every moment
  of her three solos, creating nearly perfect character studies and even
  making an ultra-smarmy song called ``Stars and the Moon'' feel
  genuine. During ensemble numbers, you can see and feel her cast
  mates feeding off her energy.

  The rest of the foursome is skilled but not as impressive. Vanessa
  Gamble's lovely musical-theater voice is shown to good advantage,
  but without the comforts of a character, she looks uncomfortable
  onstage. The same goes for Sam Kivi, who is a serviceable singer but
  a better actor. David B. Young takes almost the entire 90-minute
  show to warm up: He delivers the goods in the show's penultimate
  number, ``Flying Home,'' but is tentative for most of the rest of the

  Musical director/pianist Denise Prosek heads a fine onstage trio that
  also includes Kirk Radke on bass and percussionist Brian Glenn. They
  give the music a bright finish. With the cast, they also demonstrate
  that, even if Jason Robert Brown isn't quite ready to bear the entire
  future of American musical theater on his shoulders, his is a career to
  be watched.

  Theater critic Dominic P. Papatola can be reached at or (651) 228-2165.

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songs for a new world