Times - Picayune; New Orleans, La.; Jul 31, 1998; DOMINIC P.
PAPATOLA Theater critic;
"Songs for a New World" is a collection of emotion and energy, wrapped
music that is alternately heartfelt and maudlin, ingenious and predictable. In its
best moments, it's a delight. In its worst moments, it's hackneyed. In all its
moments, though, it billows with enthusiasm and good-hearted energy.
The 1995 musical revue, making its first appearance outside of New York
at the True Brew Theatre, features 16 songs by composer/lyricist Jason Robert
Brown that share little except a winsome inventiveness and a tangential
connection to the American experience.
Brown is clearly a student both of popular music and of the idioms of
theater of the last quarter-century. His songwriting style borrows some from the
cotton-candy confections of Burt Bacharach and the bright, catchy
tunesmanship of Stephen Schwartz (the latter of "Godspell" fame).
His best efforts as a lyricist exploit the kind of punchy wordplays
early collaborations between Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber and have a
shrewd, efficient storytelling style that might favorably be compared to Stephen
The resulting tunes are all over the place, leaping around in time,
mood without warning. "On the Deck of a Spanish Ship, 1492," is a moody,
gospel-ly solo that bespeaks the beginnings of the New World referenced in
the title. It's immediately followed by "Just One Step," a comic, almost-patter
song with references to Maurey Povich and Connie Chung.
Some story songs sashay into predictable, saccharine emotionalism. But
veer off toward an unexpected resolution. "I'm Not Afraid of Anything," sung
with nuance and grace by Kerry Mendelson, starts out as a young woman's
bold anthem of confidence and finishes as a poignant example of manifest
And there are one or two genuine innovations, such as "King of the World,"
driving tune sung by an about-to-be-executed modern-day Christ figure (an
intense, brooding Michael Larche) who laments that no one understood that "I
was not challenging the system / I was working for the people."
Mostly, these are strongly felt songs of youth and its attendant joys,
periodic emotional excesses.
All that youthful gusto sometimes can become a little cloying. Too many
director-cast member Diane Lala (who has some glistening comic moments of
her own) has the lights come up on one of the singers gazing wistfully off into
the distance before launching into some earnest, heartfelt tune.
Lala and her cast, which, along with Mendelson and Larche, also includes
versatile, pleasant-voiced James Murphy, are generally up to the demands of
the material. Half the tunes in the show are solo turns, so everyone gets a
chance to shine. In the tiny True Brew space, there's the occasional example of
oversinging and a less-than- ideal balance of voices and harmonies.
Theater has a certain alchemy to it, so that some shows become greater
the sum of their parts while others somehow turn out to be less. Disjointed as it
is, "Songs for a New World" never undergoes that transfiguration, remaining
only a pastiche of individual moments. If it seldom soars, it nearly always glides
along in a pleasurable manner.
SONGS FOR A NEW WORLD
What: Diana Lala directs the local premiere of a musical revue by Jason
Where: True Brew Theatre, 200 Julia St.
When: Performances are at 8 Thursday through Saturday through Aug. 22
additional performances at 6 Sunday and Aug. 16.
Tickets: $18. Tickets for students and seniors are $15 for performances
Thursdays and Sundays. Call 522-2907.