Pfeiffer, Mykal Kilgore, Shoshana Bean, Colin Donnell
by Julia Polinsky
Jason Robert Brown made a name for himself with Songs for a New
World, back in the day. It was an off-Broadway moment as they were crafted
in the 90s: a collection of Rent-like music, put together by a talented,
energetic 25-year-old and his collaborator, Daisy Prince. They conceived the
show, worked on it for ages, finally gave it an over-arching theme: people on
the cusp of experience, headed into the unknown. About to explore a new world.
Really, it’s an amazing feat, when you consider it. An unknown
composer manages to get the attention of a director with vast Broadway
connections, and between them they cobble together a show of nothing but the
unknown composer’s unknown songs. That kind of story keeps theater-kid wannabes
pounding New York City pavements, hopeful of the big break that will make their
work and themselves famous. Ok, well known. Ok, produced.
And produced it was; Songs for a New World saw a brief
off-Broadway run, before it gained a substantial afterlife in community
theaters and college and university theater programs. You can see why; the
songs are sing-able, in a blandly post-Sondheim way, and if they’re not
overwhelmingly exciting, at nobody has to memorize lines.
Wait, what? No book? Nope. None to speak of. The sung-through
score of Songs
for a New World stands,
or falls, on its merits as a collection of examples of Brown’s songwriting
skill and the performances of his singers, and boy, does the show need those
singers to sing the hell out of Brown’s songs.
of the score is songs for actors; they need to be Acted, not just sung. Two of
the singers in the Encores! revival step up to the plate and absolutely kill
it, in smashing performances: Mykal Kilgore and Shoshana Bean do terrific jobs,
giving Brown’s songs the star turns they need.
Shoshana Bean, Mykal
particular, “On the Deck of a Spanish Sailing Ship, 1492” benefits from
Kilgore’s amazing talent, style, and presence, as well as his awesome voice;
the song and the singer might have been created for each other. His other
numbers, alas, although very good, lacked the same intensity. Shoshana Bean has
three exceptional moments, in “Just One Step,” “Stars and the Moon,” and
“Surabaya Santa,” a number emphatically over the top – literally.
other two singers, Colin Donnell and Solea Pfeiffer, balance each other well,
being equally pleasant and hardworking, but not exciting. Pfeiffer displays a
lovely wispiness in “Christmas Lullaby,” but Donnell’s best efforts can’t raise
even his most emotional moments above somewhat wooden.
Kate Whoriskey presents this staged reading as just that, complete with music
stands and scripts-in-hands. What’s novel and interesting, though, is her use
of an ensemble of dancers to enhance? Decorate? Explicate? Inform? Whatever. To
dance around the songs. The dance ensemble competently executes choreographer
Rennie Harris’s hip-hop/street/contemporary/modern dances, which are visually
compelling, utterly distracting, frequently unrelated to the songs, and
ultimately a head-scratching moment.
photos by Joan Marcus
are these dancers here? Once or twice, they really do give a visual boost to
the impact of a song – particularly in “The Flagmaker,” and the transition to
it. But mostly, they’re interesting to watch, but not doing much for the show
other than to give the audience something to look at.
Encores! stage always presents challenges. An excellent orchestra under music
director Tom Murray, sited on stage, offers opportunities for a sound designer
to try to overcome the simple fact that orchestras by their nature produce more
sound than singers do. Sometimes, sound designer Leon Rothenberg manages that
balance well; other times, not so much, in spite of all the miking. Scenic
designer Donyale Werle makes a charmingly moon-and-starlit set – a lovely
reference to “Stars and the Moon,” one of the best songs in the show – and
really gets to flex her design muscles on “Surabaya Santa;” costume designer
Clint Ramos has a ball with that number, too.
for a New World
certainly has a loyal following; the audience went utterly batty over many of
the numbers, jigging in their seats, leaping up to applaud, shouting approval.
Thank god for loyal fans. They keep the dream alive.
Songs for a New World
Jun 27 – 30
Wed & Thu at 7:30pm,
Fri at 8pm, and Sat at 2 & 8pm
W 55th St
(between Sixth and Seventh avenues)