Entertainment » Theatre

Songs for a New World

by Rob Lester
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Saturday Oct 18, 2008
Jason Robert Brown, composer/lyricist of "Songs for a New World"
Jason Robert Brown, composer/lyricist of "Songs for a New World"  

No, there's no real story to this song cycle known as Songs For A New World, exactly. This rare revival of Jason Robert Brown's 1995 piece retains much of its raw, restless energy in an admirable production. In a perhaps daring move that could have backfired, they've expanded the company and thereby the scope and world view of this new "New World."

There's something quite right and wonderful about adding an ensemble of teenagers to the four singing actors normally cast in it. The score is full of mostly dramatic or anthem-like numbers telling stories of yearning, confusion, understanding, realization, coming of age, finding one's place in the world, and taking responsibility for relationships as an adult who sees beyond his own reflection in the mirror. Having teens full of wide-eyed hope or hurt or trust or instant angst makes it all the more powerful and close to the epidermis and heart. And the really good news is that these teens are focused, intense, clearly attentive to their work as dancers and singers, consistently and specifically in character: reacting, responding, dare I say feeling the emotions whizzing around.

The lions' share of the singing of those emotions belongs to the four actors who are the soloists, listed simply as Man #1, Man #2, Woman #1, and Woman #2. They are dynamic and vivid, particularly Matt DeAngelis who is fairly bursting with a raw energy and determination that co-exists sometimes with scars that don't heal easily. Even so, he is undaunted and in that vein, proclaiming that he is "King Of The World," he seethes with freeing power and confidence, only to be shot down by his own tragic confession and unavoidable reality, "At least I used to be." In other moments, he holds his head high with a pride that comes from a burning will to survive: "You don't know me... but you will." His riveting singing voice often dominates the action, and one can't help but think he must be a role model to the teens each night.

Marc G. Dalio is the other man, with fewer bravura moments to shine, but his more settled, secure persona comes through and provides balance. When the two come on with the younger guys to sing "She Cries," it's staged and costumed as a game of basketball initially bringing the group together and played as a male-bonding ritual with the older men advising the younger on the ways of the world and of women. The teens don't just dress the stage: they listen intently, drink it all in, exchange looks, get pulled in or puzzled. You can see their brains clicking almost as clearly as you can see their well-staged dance movements. When Matt spins the basketball on the tip of his finger, it's as if he is spinning a tale, advice, or wisdom.

The musically gifted Janine Ayn Romano as Woman # 1 bridges the transitions repeating the strains (of the almost-title-song, and you wish she had one or two more solos that allowed her to be something other than earnest and noble, though she does that well. She does get one break from all that: her rendition of "I'm Not Afraid Of Anything" comparing herself to other fearful acquaintances is a grand example of phrasing a song like spinning out a story, as if the thoughts of how exactly to express herself are occurring to her in the moment. Her gestures and relaxed smile add to that and are a refreshing break from the heavier burdens she's carrying elsewhere (and carrying a baby).

The final leading player, Suzanne Sole, gets more solo opportunities. She has the juicy character comedy showcase of the frustrated and vengeful Mrs. Santa in the Kurt Weill parody-wink-pastiche, "Surabaya Santa." She may need a little more time to fully let herself go into the comic relief campiness of that and find some more variety in "Stars And The Moon." I liked her early scene as a heavily-accented Lawng Oyland (Long Island) whining wife threatening suicide from a balcony (the duo-leveled stage at ATA Chernuchin Theater, with city-suggesting design elements is nicely employed for this.

The energy of the composer-lyricist of this 1995 song cycle is also very much in the New York air this month: Jason Robert Brown did a run at Birdland ten blocks south and his newest musical, "13," also with a cast of teens is playing on Broadway a block from there.

This Greymatters Productions revival is directed by Debbie Slevin. Special mention must be made of the way emotions are underscored, shaded, and brought out by the sensitivity and power of the lighting design of Bailie Slevin. She's also listed as general manager. With Harvey and Naomi Slevin listed as associate producers, one must assume this is a family affair. That "family" feeling extends to the interaction on stage: there is a sort of parental protectiveness as the older cast members comfort or put their arms around the younger ones, a head resting on a knee, an encouraging nod noted and accepted gratefully as songs lyrics sock home the needed messages.

Musical staging by Marlo Hunter reinforces the life-affirming ambience, with a sense of struggle coming through loud and clear in a kinetic way with raw nerve endings and talent bursting with sparks like mad. Cast member Marc G. Dalio is also the musical director of the show which features a fine, tight band. They make what could be just a navel-gazing, self-pitying group of four people bemoaning their fates a much more universal and riveting experience. The teens are their witnesses---or ours. Come witness it.

Through Oct. 25 at ATA Chernuchin Theatre, 2nd floor at 314 West 54th St., Manhattan. 10/17,
10/18, 10/21, 10/22, 10/23, 10/24, 10/25 8 pm curtain
matinees: 10/18, 10/25 2pm curtain
10/19 3pm curtain
Order tickets at www.theatermania.com/content/show.cfm/show/146846
or call 212-352-3101 or 1-866-811-4111.
Tickets $18 plus a processing fee.

Rob Lester is a freelance writer living in lovely N.Y.C., also contributing weekly to www.TalkinBroadway.com (Sound Advice, etc.), Cabaret Scenes Magazine, www.CabaretExchange.com and is a judge for the Nightlife Awards and next year’s Bistro Awards. He welcomes feedback at onthejobrob@gmail.com


Comments

  • Gizmo, 2008-10-20 21:05:18

    Don’t know what Rob Lester is talking about. We thought Woman #2 (Suzanne Sole) was excellent!Great strong vocal and acting. A real star. A lot of people waited outside the theater and when Suzanne came out they burst into applause! All we can say is she was terrific. The whole show was a real treat.


  • , 2008-10-21 08:35:22

    Kudos to the whole company. After seeing the show I walked out feeling moved- I laughed I cried ! The four leads were stong and unique in their own right. I especially enjoyed Suzanne Sole’s comedic scenes - she truley has the chops- absolutely hystarical! Matt was mezmorizing.... I think I will go see it again!!


  • Gizmo, 2008-10-25 14:02:47

    A WOW show...4 leads are HOT!


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