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Songs For A New World

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - June 28, 2018

Mykal Kilgore
Photo by Joan Marcus

A musical with no plot? No dialog? No actual characters? With only a thread of a theme to hold things together? Really? These and similarly skeptical thoughts rattled around in my head as I took my seat for the Encores! Off-Center production of Jason Robert Brown's 1995 song cycle Songs For A New World. And I was far from reassured as I eyeballed the row of four music stands lined up across the stage and braced myself for what I expected would be a long and uninspired 100 minutes of a by-the-numbers concert performed by a quartet of singers.

Well, guess what. I erred in my prejudgment.

Jason Robert Brown (Parade, The Bridges of Madison County, The Last Five Years) says he took his inspiration for the show from the similarly-devised David Shire-Richard Maltby Jr. revue Closer Than Ever, which explored the ins and outs of romantic and other relationships through a series of separate, self-contained songs. It worked for Shire and Maltby, and it works for Songs For A New World, especially as it is being presented during its too-brief run at City Center.

To begin with, the show offers a great assortment of songs, ranging in style from pop to folk to country to gospel to power ballads, almost all of which are infused with jazzy rhythms that kept my toe tapping throughout the entire first act, where the numbers are mostly about wishes, hopes and dreams. Shoshana Bean, who is on a lot of people's shortlist to star in a longed-for return to Broadway of Funny Girl, is probably the best known of the talented cast. She even has a couple of theater songs that allow her to show off her well-honed comic chops here. One of these is a hilarious take-off on Kurt Weill, called "Surabaya-Santa." Another, "Just One Step," presents a woman's over-the-top argument with her husband Murray as she threatens to jump from her upper-story apartment.

But this is not just a showcase for Shoshana Bean. All four singers are excellent, and one, Mykal Kilgore, just about steals the show as he shapes each of his numbers almost into a mini-production. The other two singers are Solea Pfeiffer (Eliza in the first national tour of Hamilton) and Colin Donnell (Monty in the Broadway production of Jeanine Tesori's Violet). Both are very good performers in their own right, but where Ms. Bean and Mr. Kilgore stand out is in their ability to create actual characters drawn from the lyrics to each of their songs.

I found myself imagining several of the numbers as being embedded into a musical about those characters, most especially with one of Ms. Bean's songs, a wrenching piece called "The Flagmaker, 1775" about a seamstress sewing flags at the time of the American Revolution, worried about the fate of her husband and her son. And if a plotless show of this sort can be said to have an 11 o'clock number, that would be the one immediately following. It is a soaring stunner called "Flying Home" ("The angel's called you to leave this land/My work is finished, my work is finished") that Mr. Kilgore delivers with roof-raising, show-stopping emotional intensity that inspired well deserved and extended applause from the audience at last night's opening performance.

For this production, the composer has also provided new orchestrations, and the singers are backed by a terrific nine-person orchestra, all strings and percussion conducted by pianist James Sampliner. Beyond the musical performances, director Kate Whoriskey has upped the ante ten-fold with a well-thought out, all around splendid presentation. The show makes effective and dramatic use of the depth of the stage space (there are three performance levels). The singers are joined, as well, by a gifted ensemble of dancers performing Rennie Harris's powerful choreography that perfectly complements the tone and style of every number they appear in. Finally, Mark Barton's lighting and Donyale Werle's set design make for a visual representation that is equal to the music and singing. All told, this is an exceptionally fine production, and a rare and highly successful example of a plotless song cycle that manages to be as theatrical as a book musical, filled with unexpected pleasures throughout.

Encores! Off-Center
Songs For A New World

Through June 30
New York City Center's Mainstage, 131 West 55th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues
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