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Songs for a New World

Jason Robert Brown’s 1995 plotless debut show of intriguing songs gets a dynamic revival with sensational performances by a company of singers and dancers. 

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Shoshana Bean and ensemble as they performed “Surabaya-Santa” in Encores! Off-Center’s revival of Jason Robert Brown’s “Songs for a New World” (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

Darryl Reilly

Darryl Reilly, Critic

The unison of Jason Robert Brown’s accomplished score, Kate Whoriskey’s exciting direction and Rennie Harris’s vibrant choreography make this New York City Center Encores! Off-Center’s revival of his 1995 debut show Songs for a New World, a dynamic theatrical experience. Mr. Brown’s surprise appearance at the piano to play a song in the second act was electrifying.

Contributing to the thrills is Shoshana Bean’s show stopping numbers as Mrs. Claus and Betsy Ross and Mykal Kilgore’s magnetic presence and awesome vocal abilities. Colin Donnell and Solea Pfeiffer comprise the rest of the company and excel with their intense renditions. There are solos, duets and group numbers.

Mykal Kilgore and ensemble in a scene from Encores! Off-Center’s revival of Jason Robert Brown’s “Songs for a New World” (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

 Songs for a New World began as a New York City cabaret revue showcasing a collection of Mr. Brown’s songs. Daisy Prince reconceived it as a theater piece that she directed at Off-Broadway’s WPA Theatre where it played for six weeks. Along the way, half of the songs were excised and new ones replaced them.

“…These songs were meant to function as musical short stories,” said Brown. One of these is the now iconic “Stars and the Moon.” Without a formal plot, they make allusions to Christopher Columbus as well as other factual and fictional characters.  Remarkably at the at the age of 25, Brown demonstrated his talent for the soaring eclectic melodies and affective lyrics that would characterize his scores for Parade, The Last Five Years and The Bridges of Madison County.

Solea Pfeiffer as she sang “Stars and the Moon” in Encores! Off-Center’s revival of Jason Robert Brown’s “Songs for a New World” (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

The stage is bare is except for four music stands, all bathed in blue light. The cast enters and sings. Scenic designer Donyale Werle’s imaginative artistry is now evident. A scrim rises and we see the orchestra and a rectangular jagged structure below them with green lighting that conjures a verdant atmosphere. A circle descends from the ceiling that looks like the moon and floats around periodically. Whoriskey’s commanding staging yields a gorgeous non-specific landscape that alters with the songs resulting in numerous lovely stage pictures. A ladder on wheels gets a lot of use as well.

Above the orchestra is a platform where the ensemble of Phil Cuttino Jr., Virgil Gadson, Mai Lê Hô, Samantha Shepherd and Danzel Thompson-Stout joyously perform Mr. Harris’s spirited choreography that combines modern dance, hip-hop and ballet moves. The dancers also appear onstage to interact with the singers.

Colin Donnell and ensemble in a scene from Encores! Off-Center’s revival of Jason Robert Brown’s “Songs for a New World” (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

All together the production is aurally and visually pleasurable. The Encores! Off-Center orchestra under the musical direction of Tom Murray perfectly renders Brown’s new orchestrations with melodious flair. Leon Rothenberg’s sound design realizes the score and effects to the optimum, though at times the sound design and orchestrations overpowered the singers. Lighting designer Mark Barton’s shimmering efforts convey a celestial dimension. Clint Ramos’ costume design is a rich tweaking of contemporary casual wear along with luxurious standouts such as Ms. Bean’s sensuous Mrs. Claus outfit.

Knowledgeable admirers of Jason Robert Brown’s work would likely be enraptured by this incarnation. Those less familiar with Songs for a New World may be enticed by the compelling tunes, terrific talent involved and the superior stagecraft.

Songs for a New World (Jun 27 – 30, 2018)

New York City Center Encores! Off-Center 

New York City Center, 131 West 55th Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, call 212-581-1212 or visit http://www.nycitycenter.org

Running time: one hour and 45 minutes including one intermission

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Darryl Reilly
About Darryl Reilly (563 Articles)
A native New Yorker, Darryl Reilly graduated from NYU with a BFA in Cinema Studies. For the Broadway League, (formerly The League of American Theatres and Producers) he developed, and for five years conducted their Broadway Open House Tours, which took visitors through The Theatre District and into several Broadway theaters. He contributed to Broadway Musicals Show by Show: Sixth Edition (Applause Books). Since 2013, he has reviewed theater, cabaret, and concerts for Theaterscene.net.

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