For the final musical theater workshop of the 2002-2003 Studio Series, the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music (CCM) presents a well conceived and executed production of Songs For A New World. When it premiered in the mid-1990s, the show introduced audiences to the skills of a composer/lyricist that is widely considered one of the leading writers in musical theater today. At CCM, it features performers who will be part of the future of musicals for years to come.
Songs For A New World is a modern musical revue that chronicles the wonder, excitement, and anxiety associated with discovery. Whether the discovery is that of monumental worldwide significance, such as Columbus's journey to the Americas, or of a personal revelation of one's self, it is the awareness of a new world filled with opportunities and limitations. Composer/Lyricist Jason Robert Brown, who won a Tony Award for Parade and who recently wrote new material for the musical version of Urban Cowboy, has provided a wide array of melodic songs that capture both the power and vulnerability of newly found knowledge. The lyrics are intricate and emotional, and the music is challenging and uplifting. Written when Mr. Brown was still in his early twenties, the show expresses the true sense of the journey for meaning that every person must take and the result is a captivating piece of musical theater.
At CCM, the show has been double-cast with two sets of four performers. At the performance reviewed, the young cast proved worthy of the demanding material. J. Michael Kinsey displays an impressive range and soulful vocals in songs such as "On the Deck of a Spanish Sailing Ship, 1492," "Flying Home," and "King of the World". Doug Barton isn't given the same opportunities to show off his abilities, but does provide strong and steady singing throughout. The women in the cast turn in even better performances. Emily Randolph Jones is wonderfully endearing and supplies the appropriate warmth, along with pleasing vocals on "I'm Not Afraid" and "Christmas Lullaby". Lindsay Pier shows great versatility in scoring many laughs with "Just One Step" and "Surabaya Santa," while also demonstrating skillful singing for "Stars and the Moon" and "The Flagmaker, 1775". The cast handles the exquisite vocal arrangements well, and the wonderful orchestrations performed by a talented three-piece orchestra also aid in making this revue a success. Based on their fine performances in previous CCM productions, the other set of performers - Gina Restani, Betsy Wolfe, Keldon Price, and Geoff Packard - are likely to similarly impress.
Diane Lala serves as director and provides some very effective staging for many of the numbers. Emotional moments, as well as much of the comedy in the piece, are clearly communicated thanks to Ms. Lala's directorial choices.
Although this is a workshop production, there are some nice design elements for CCM's Songs For A New World. The simple and attractive set by Jennifer Imbler efficiently uses several levels, boxes, a few set pieces (including a piece of furniture that playfully doubles as a sleigh) and some flowing fabrics that are altered for each song. The lighting by Lorna Darelius is likewise well rendered and quite successfully helps in establishing tone throughout. Costumes and sound design for the production are, unfortunately, less satisfactory.
CCM workshops give students more opportunities to perform in interesting, yet somewhat lesser known pieces. Songs for a New World is an excellent choice. The performers, with the aid of fine direction and some nice design elements, make the most of this chance. The show concludes May 3 at Cohen Family Studio Theater.