Published Friday, January 28, 2000

Review: 'Songs For a New World' by Tony winner Jason Robert Brown at Bryant-Lake Bowl

by William Randall Beard

                            Local audiences are unlikely to be familiar with
                            JasonRobertBrown, even though he won a 1999 Tony Award
                            for the musical "Parade." That's one reason to be grateful to
                            Theater Latte Da for presenting "Songs For a New World," a
                            new revue of Brown's material from "Parade" and other shows.
                            It's unfortunate, though, that the presentation doesn't serve as a
                            better introduction.

                            These days, revues are primarily retrospectives, a chance to
                            rediscover and reminisce over more or less familiar songs. In this
                            case, Theatre Latte Da is to be applauded for offering new
                            material, even though the production's style might be more
                            appropriate to an evening of standards.

                            With red velvet drapes and red plush upholstery, the
                            Bryant-Lake Bowl Theater takes on the look of a classic
                            nightclub. Theater Latte Da has done more-theatrical revues in
                            the past, but the presentation here is appropriate to the set: It's
                            very stand-up-and-sing. The four singers are grouped tastefully,
                            sitting or standing in front of microphones.

                            Peter Rothstein's direction is simple and unobtrusive, perhaps too
                            much so. These are theater songs, but robbed of any theatrical
                            context they make little emotional impression. More than once, I
                            found myself wishing to know the situation the songs had been
                            designed to illuminate, to make the emotions a little less abstract.

                            One song that stands out as a glaring exception is "Just One
                            Step," where an unhappily married woman (Erin Schwab)
                            threatens to jump off a 53rd-floor ledge. Aside from being very
                            funny, the scene is dramatically alive enough to truly involve the

                            Part of the effect must be credited to the performance of
                            Schwab. Beyond her strong musical-comedy voice, she is born
                            to perform in this format. Whenever she is onstage she is
                            instinctively working to connect with her audience.

                            Vanessa Gamble seems less at home in the style. She has a
                            more refined voice, but her aloof stage presence means that she
                            makes less of an impact.

                            David B. Young and Sam Kivi have strong voices and know
                            how to use them to create characters and tell stories. But the
                            songs still ended up sounding like generic pop musical-comedy
                            ballads too often.

                            The four were at their best in the many ensembles. Music
                            director Denise Prosek deserves credit for drawing strong
                            performances from the four singers and for leading the three
                            instrumentalists who accompany them.

                            Brown is clearly a composer to watch. Anyone interested in the
                            future of the American musical probably will be interested in
                            "Songs For a New World." There is much to give pleasure, even
                            if the effect of the evening is not all one might have hoped for.


-- William Randall Beard is a Minneapolis freelance writer.

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