Songs for a New World
Jason Robert Brown sure knows how to pull ‘em back in. As the crowd at John Hancock Hall shrugged on their coats and began shuffling up the aisles following the finale of Songs For a New World, Brown collapsed at the piano and launched into a surprise encore of “Movin’ Too Fast.” Without so much as blinking, everyone whipped around and began jostling their way back into the auditorium. Ringing the back of the theatre and howling their approval, the thrilled audience saluted Brown with yet another standing ovation. And that is the effect of Jason Robert Brown.
Monday night’s benefit concert for the fire-ravaged North Shore Music Theatre did indeed exemplify the magical effect of musical theatre. Twelve well-known Boston-area performers and special guest star Lauren Kennedy (the original Cathy in Brown’s The Last Five Years) rallied together with Boston University’s orchestra and Brown’s band, The Caucasian Rhythm Kings, to present Songs For a New World. First produced Off-Broadway in 1995, Brown’s debut song cycle didn’t originally garner critical success but steadily rose to cult status through college and regional productions. Brown followed up Songs with the Tony-winning Parade and The Last Five Years (which boasts its own rabidly loyal fan base). Not too shabby for a guy who also just released his first solo album, “Wearing Someone Else’s Clothes,” and yet still possesses the self-deprecating humor and intense piano skills that make it clear he never got into this business for the fame.
With the lanky, easy manner of a stand-up comic, Brown narrated sections of the evening with background anecdotes and explained a little of how Songs For a New World came into being. Comprised of sixteen songs and no discernible plot, Songs relies heavily on the talent of its performers, and this time enjoyed the added bonus of lush symphonic orchestrations for ten of the pieces. Starting the evening off with a bang were Mary Callanan, Andrew Giordano, Veronica Khuen, Jose Delgado and ensemble with the intricate and buoyant “The New World.”
Leigh Barrett’s desperately hilarious “Just One Step” — set on the ledge of a Park Avenue penthouse — and Mary Callanan’s feisty, sassy “Surabaya-Santa” hit comic high notes that balanced flawlessly with the show’s signature poignant and uplifting numbers. Especially beautiful were Brian Robinson’s “King of the World” and Joyce MacPhee’s “Christmas Lullaby.” Showing a fierce command of “The Flagmaker, 1776” was operatic Kerry Dowling, and featured dancer Cyrus Akeem Brooks made “The Steam Train” fresh with his break-dancing gymnastics.
Lauren Kennedy enjoyed an enthusiastic reception near the end of the evening with her passionate rendition of “Flying Home.” Kennedy has her own solo CD entitled “Songs of Jason Robert Brown,” and Monday’s gripping performance proved once again how magnificently suited her voice is to Brown’s work.
The true highlight of the evening - aside from the surprise encore - was witnessing Brown himself perform “She Cries.” Accompanying himself on the piano and engaging in a complicated and impressive musical duet with bassist Randy Landau, Brown slid effortlessly from humor to sadness to revelation , keeping the audience fully engaged. Rarely does a composer come equipped with the vocal chops and natural stage charm that Brown dispenses with ease.
After the last pounding notes of “Moving Too Fast” died away and Brown jokingly mouthed for the audience to “go home already,” the crowd once again swelled for the door. This time, though, the push was to snag a place in the autograph line, where Brown and Kennedy graciously greeted every fan and signed each program and CD cover. Not surprisingly, many of the audience members lingered in the lobby after securing their inscribed souvenirs. Perhaps they were hoping, and not without cause, for just one more song.