Despite being a great fan of musical theatre, I have a confession to make. Until last night, I had never heard of composer Jason Robert Brown. I should feel shame at this but the good thing is that I am not alone and, for whatever reason, Jason is not as well-known as many in the musical theatre genre. However, my level of knowledge has been vastly increased as I went along to the St James Theatre in Victoria where his show “Songs for a New World” is running until August.
“Songs for a New World” is musical theatre but at the same time, it isn’t. There is no discernible story nor any real connection between the four cast members who are not actually the same character throughout the show. In fact they don’t have names, and are identified only as Man 1 (Dean John-Wilson), Woman 1 (Cynthia Erivo), Man 2 (Damian Humbley) and Woman 2 (Jenna Russell). So, if “Songs for a New World” isn’t true musical theatre then what is it? Twenty years after it was first produced, people are still asking this question. Is it a song cycle, a revue, a combination of all or something entirely different? Not only does nobody really know, it isn’t actually that important as the show is definitely 90 minutes of fine musical entertainment.
Adam Lenson directs the show with a deft hand and, according to his notes in the programme, really seems to understand the show. He has put together a production that reflects his view that the songs are intrinsically linked to each other. Not everyone will agree with this, certainly I don’t think the links are as cut and dried as Adam does, but the setting allows for every viewpoint to be accommodated. The set by Andrew Riley is fairly ambiguous – to me it was a New York loft apartment waiting for someone to live in it, but I could be wrong – and makes good use of the stage, particularly as there is plenty of space for the band (under Musical Director Daniel A Weiss) to be both on stage and not at the same time. This fits in really well with the whole ‘is it a musical or not’ debate.
Turning to the music itself, “Songs for a New World” is a wonderful mixture of styles. Jazz, Gospel, ballad, etc, they are all in the score – often with a mixture of styles in one song. A nice example of this is the evocative ‘On the Decks of a Spanish Sailing Ship, 1492’ which is a really powerful piece of music using all the singers’ voices to great effect. There are solo and ensemble numbers and some really amusing songs – ‘Just one Step’ and ‘Surabaya Santa’ instantly spring to mind in this respect. There are also songs that tell a really deep, profound story, ‘The Flagmaker,1775’ is just such a number. In fact, this really is a show where amongst the sixteen numbers, there is something for everyone.
Adam Lenson has, to my mind, managed to gather together one of the strongest casts I’ve seen in a musical production in a long while. The four singers have a wonderful stage presence and at times moved this member of the audience to tears with their delivery; ‘Flying Home’ was a case in point. Cynthia Erivo in particular was a wonder to behold. Her voice, control and delivery were simply amazing and her solo numbers were truly fantastic to experience. I was also really impressed with the singing voice of Dean John-Wilson. He had some very emotional songs needing a large vocal range to pull them off successfully, which to my mind he really did. Jenna Russell turned out not only to be a great singer but also a wonderful comic actress with a lovely sense of timing and a German accent that would not have been out of place in a Bavarian beer hall. Turning finally to Damian Humbley, who I think didn’t have enough solo songs (but it’s probably too late to ask Jason to write some more). Those he did have, including one of my favourites of the night ‘She Cries’, were brilliantly sung and really held the attention of the entire audience. Four fantastic performers, who sang amazingly on their own, and together, raised the roof of the St James Theatre with a performance that was outstanding in every way.
Whilst writing this review of “Songs for a New World”, I’ve been listening to the original Off-Broadway album on Spotify (other streaming services are available) and while it’s great, it is not a patch on the production I saw last night. So my final plea to the Director is this. Get a cast album recorded and out to the world as soon as possible. And my final comment to you, dear reader, is get along to the St James Theatre before the 8th of August or kick yourself for missing out on such a wonderful evening’s musical entertainment.
Review by Terry Eastham
Songs For a New World
St James Theatre
22 July – 8 August 2015
Triple-Tony Award winner Jason Robert Brown’s Songs for a New World comes to the St. James’ Theatre for 3 weeks only! Celebrating 20 years since its first performance Off-Broadway with an all-new London production.
Starring a multi-award-winning cast:
Directed by Adam Lenson
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From the celebrated composer-lyricist of The Last Five Years, Parade, Bridges of Madison County, 13 and Honeymoon in Vegas.