Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Boston

Songs for a New World

SpeakEasy Stage Company is reprising their critically acclaimed InConcert Event Songs for a New World for four performances (June 18, 19, 25 & 26) at the Lyric Stage in Copley Square. Director Paul Daigneault turns what was originally a four-person revue meant to introduce composer Jason Robert Brown to the world into a showcase for fifteen talented local performers, many of them SpeakEasy veterans.

What a pleasure to see these actors again: Kerry A. Dowling (Miss Jane, Floyd Collins and The Homeless Woman, A New Brain,) Bridget Beirne (a leading role in every SpeakEasy musical since her award-winning debut in Violet last year,) Val Sullivan (Rhoda, A New Brain,) Phillip Woods (the nice nurse, A New Brain,) and my new favorite, Jose Delgado (currently doing double-duty as a performer and the music director for Saturday Night.)

I'm also especially delighted to have been introduced to Leigh Barrett and Belle Linda Halpern, but I look forward to seeing their musical talents and comic abilities put to better use.

The other one not to miss is pianist/conductor Paul S. Katz. Watch his amazing hands as he sweats off five pounds a night playing a ridiculous number of notes, all the while keeping the drummer, bass player, percussionist and other keyboard player in line and making sure the score doesn't fly off the piano. You can hear the influence of Billy Joel, one of Brown's early heroes, in this very densely written score, but I wish he also had Joel's melodic gift and bent for story-telling.

Although unrelated, each song (according to Brown) is supposed to shed a little light on the angst or dilemma of a particular character at a crossroads in life. In most cases I couldn't figure who these people were, let alone follow them from point A to point B. In some cases, I simply couldn't keep up.

The energy and pace is unrelenting. After awhile it all sounded like one big, long number. I was reminded of my cats at their most frenetic. They may get my attention by beating out a tattoo on the wood floors like a herd of buffalo as they chase each other through the house, but I also enjoy them peacefully curled up next to me or perched on a windowsill talking to squirrels.

I don't understand the current audience's appetite for what I can only best describe as "big singing," a term I first saw used in a 1998 NY Times article about the "the new musical," which prominently featured Brown. In his case, it probably springs from his rock, gospel and blues roots. Applied in the right doses, these influences could serve him well, but he needs to learn when to let some of us come up for air.

Brown has been on the fast track since then. He won the Tony for Parade and got a nice boost from Audra McDonald when she included two of his songs on her debut CD. Her concert rendition of "Stars and the Moon, " the best-known number from Songs for a New World, displays it better than in its original context because it isn't lost in a sea of sameness.

Brown's latest collaboration with director Daisy Prince (whose idea it was to do Songs for a New World) sounds like a more intriguing way to structure an evening of songs. The Last Five Years, currently a big hit at Chicago's Northlight Theatre, tells the story of the dissolution of a marriage from the point of view of the two subjects, one telling the story forward and the other from the present looking backwards. If I don't catch it in New York this fall, I look forward to seeing it in Boston at SpeakEasy Stage someday.

In the meanwhile, I'll try whatever else artistic director Paul Daigneault has to offer, especially if he continues to seek out the best local talent.

Songs For a New Word is presented by The SpeakEasy Stage Company, at the Lyric Stage, 140 Clarendon St., Boston (the YWCA building) on Monday and Tuesdays at 8PM, June 18, 19, 25 & 26. Box office phone: 617 437-7731.

See the current theatre schedule for the Boston area.

-- Suzanne Bixby

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