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Chicago by John Olson

Songs for a New World
Bohemian Theatre Ensemble

Also see John's review of Passion

Songs For a New World
Jess Godwin, Alanda Coon, Michael Arthur, Jayson Brooks
Intimacy in theater is a great thing, but sometimes it just makes me feel a little ... selfish. In the tiny Heartland Studio Theater, seating maybe 35 or 40, Bohemian's Songs for a New World showcases so much talent that it felt criminal to allow the cast of four to perform for such a small group, albeit a full house. The 1995 revue of songs by Jason Robert Brown is performed by young performers whose ability and presence belie their ages. If this production is seen by less than 700 people during its five weekend run, then lucky us, I guess. The rest of the world will have to wait a little longer, but it seems a shame to deprive the rest of Chicago's musical theater fans of the opportunity to hear them, and an even greater shame to make the cast wait for the hearing they deserve.

Half of the cast has already gotten some significant kudos from the city's critics and theater community for their previous work. Jayson Brooks earned raves for his Coalhouse Walker in this year's Ragtime by Porchlight Music Theatre. Jess Godwin made an impressive debut two years ago as Queenie in Bohemian's Wild Party and, while she's had some good parts since, this is the first opportunity I've had to see her really cut loose vocally. Their two cast mates, Alanda Coon and Michael Arthur, haven't had the same sorts of vehicles yet in Chicago, but here they're just as impressive as Brooks and Godwin.

Coon gets some of the best songs of the review – including "Just One Step," the lament of an angry soon-to-be divorcée; the cabaret favorite "Stars and the Moon"; and the comedy number "Surabaya Santa." She possesses a big voice that can she can unleash when needed while maintaining complete control and pitch. Arthur has a high baritone that feels especially fresh and distinctive. He and Godwin are sort of the "romantic leads" of the piece. Those who know Brown's The Last Five Years are familiar with Brown's ability to depict men's difficulties in fully connecting with women. "She Cries" is a precursor of his songs for The Last Five Years and Arthur does a terrific job of singing and acting it. He and Godwin do well by their duet, "I'd Give It All for You." Brooks' powerful voice is put to good use with the gospel-influenced "The River Won't Flow" and the funky "Steam Train," as well as the spiritual influenced "On the Deck of a Spanish Sailing Ship, 1492" and "Flying Home." "I'm Not Afraid of Anything," an anthem of self-assertion, is Godwin's big moment and she takes full advantage of the number, showing more guts and range than she's had the chance to display in her previous musical theater roles.

The impressive vocals of the cast are unamplified – they cut through to our bones acoustically without any help from electricity, thank you – and are accompanied by Music Director Andra Velis Simon on piano and Sean Burke and Andy Swindler on drums.

Director Elizabeth Margolius employs an abstract concept in which the four performers freeze during others' solos, with only occasional stylized movement in reaction to the lyrics, giving focus to the soloist while making use of the remainder of the ensemble for commentary. They're dressed in neutral colored gauze costumes designed by Theresa Ham that free the audience to imagine the time and settings of the songs that range from the years 1492 and 1775 to the present. The set designed by John Zuiker places the actors on a series of wood plank platforms suggesting the ramps of piers of a seaport appropriate to both the literal and figurative journeys of the characters. Hanging above are a number of lamps made of Ball jars, hanging from ropes of hemp, used sparingly, but to good purpose, in the effective lighting design of Julian Pike.

The performances only disappoint in that there still seems to be not enough time to hear each of the four performers sing as much as we'd like. With voices like these in performers who can act the heck of our Brown's character-driven songs, it's tempting to wonder why we need dialogue in musical theater at all and to resent it for taking time away from hearing more of these four in their previous musical theater work.

Songs for a New World will be performed Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. through November 4, 2007 at the Heartland Studio, 7016 N. Glenwood, Chicago. For tickets, visit www.bohotheatre.com/boxoffice2.htm.


Photo: Stephen M. Genovese

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-- John Olson



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