DOMINIC P. PAPATOLA
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
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
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
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.
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
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
Theater critic Dominic P. Papatola can be reached at
email@example.com or (651) 228-2165.
©1999 PioneerPlanet / St. Paul (Minnesota) Pioneer Press
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songs for a new world