5/18/2019      SONGS FOR A NEW WORLD                       BUICEntennial Productions

****½  ( A )  


It's about that moment.   That moment when it changes.  The turning point that signals what you knew doesn't matter and what you don't know changes everything.

Yes, it is true that these songs were written independently of each other, that there is no over-arching story being told, that they are merely examples of early works by Jason Robert Brown, maybe the best of a new generation of musical theatre artists.  Okay, his shows may not be as splashy (or financially successful) as Lin-Manuel Miranda's, but they are consistently elegant, consistently compelling, and, more often than not, better than their source material.

Who could imagine a turgid potboiler like The Bridges of Madison County could ever become the rapturous joy that is its musical adaptation?  Who could imagine a tacky Nicolas Cage comedy like Honeymoon in Vegas could ever become the joyful ride that is its musical adaptation?  Who could imagine a show like 13, about (and performed by) pre-adolescents could become a regional theatre mainstay and launch the careers of Ariana Grande and Elizabeth Gillies? Even Parade seems to transcend its awful historical reality to become something else entirely.

I have been ecstatically fond of Mr. Brown's work since seeing Parade and since hearing "Stars and the Moon" at an Audra MacDonald concert (and on her first CD).  When I learned it was from a revue called Songs for a New World, I immediately added that to my collection and have been enjoying it steadfastly ever since.

To be blunt, many of these songs are dense, thematically complicated (even ambiguous) pieces that may put listeners off at first hearing.  But believe me, they grow on you, opening new layers of sense and sensibility with each repeated experience.  And, at a core level, they all bear a "New World" motif or theme or undercurrent, songs about change, about turning points, about the new world that is the undiscovered future.

And seeing it live for the first time (*) was an eye-opening experience, seeing one director's stamp on the songs, four singers' experience of bringing them to life.  I found new aspects of many of these songs, new ways of viewing the characters, and, in one case, a new appreciation of what the song was about that escaped me from the many casual listenings previously experienced.

So, what are the various "New Worlds" discovered here?  Well, we do have a literal new world with "On the Deck of a Spanish Sailing Ship 1492," which is a doleful lament about dying before finding that promised new world, a lament that becomes ecstatically joyful as a shoreline is finally spotted.  There's the unhappy rich man's wife finding new possibilities on the ledge of her penthouse apartment ("Just One Step").  There's the "Steam Train" out of poverty, fueled by a round orange ball.  There's the North Pole spouse finding life that doesn't involve being deserted every Christmas Eve ("Surabaya-Santa").  There's the aforementioned "Stars and the Moon," in which a young woman discovers what she really wants may not be what she really wants.  And, my favorite, "I'll Give it All For You," in which a separated couple discover that their dreams apart are a pale shadow of their joys together.  There's a song about being unafraid of anything except maybe losing that one person, the jaded man regretting the power of a woman's tears, The river of success that seems to flow for everyone else, the pregnant woman aglow at the future's promise, the 1775 flagmaker angry at the cost of patriotism, the entire company rejoicing at the power-to-change provided by music and song.

Director Ricardo Aponte has crammed an elegant tower of stacked platforms in the middle of the Alley Stage's small space, put members of the live orchestra in three corners of the room, and surrounded it with, well, us.  Singers pass millimeters from our feet, interact one-to-one with us throughout, and, in one (semi-humiliating) number, draft an audience member to be {Deleted by the Spoiler Police}.  (If I had known I would be part of the show I would have negotiated at least a free glass of wine!).  Monitors on two walls evoke specific times and places for a (minimal) number of numbers, and chairs and artifacts are scattered haphazardly throughout.  

The show is beautifully lit by Mike Moran in a way that puts to shame my own lighting efforts in this space, and the sound is well-mixed by Paul Glaze, keeping voices clear, accompaniment even-keeled, and the sound never seeming apart from the actors.

And this cast is an ideal ensemble, four voices blending perfectly, with each having many moments to shine in solo work.  They are Juan Carlos Unzueta (who gives "Steam Train" a distinctly Latinx flair and whose voice reaches the stratosphere in the climactic "Flying Home"), Maggie Salley (whose "I'm Not Afraid" is positively heartrending), Jared Bradshaw (who made "She Cries" make more sense than it ever has before for me), and Adrianna Trachell, (who gives fresh spins to "Just One Step," "Stars and the Moon," and "Surabaya-Santa").  They each play "supporting players" in others' solos, and, when they join in chorus, it is a sound that strikes straight to your soul.

Yes, Songs for a New World is a simple (plotless) song cycle, a group of numbers united by songwriter, and by theme  And, yes, that connecting theme may require some flashy cerebral gymnastics to justify.  But each song is its own self-contained story, each character is a miracle of epiphany and revelation, and each melody is a promise of the brilliance of Jason Robert Brown.

It is a show in which "Each Moment" carries the seed of change and discovery and jubilation.  And it is unforgettable.

     -- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com    @bk_rudy    #BUICEntennialSongsForANewWorld)

(*)  Technically untrue, since a number of these songs were performed at a recital for which I did lighting -- but, in that case, there was no effort made to conceptualize the songs, and most were performed as simple solos.  

© 2023 by Glorify. Proudly created with Wix.com