Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
The connecting tissue of these sixteen songsreally, vignettes that reveal character and conflict in music and wordsis the fulcrum of change in people's lives, the point where they take a stand, made a decision, or face the results of past decisions. Each of its numbers feels like it was plucked from a full-bore musical about the character giving voice in song, and I left the theater wishing I could see all sixteen of those yet-unwritten shows.
Brown is probably best known for The Last Five Years, which began in Chicago in 2001 and ran Off-Broadway in 2002 for only two months. But the two-character musical, easy on the budget of regional theaters, has been widely produce around this country and others, with several appearances in Twin Cities theaters, including Artistry (2018), and returned to another Off-Broadway run in 2013. In 2015 it was made into a movie starring Jeremy Jordan and Anna Kendrick that, sadly, went largely unnoticed.
For his Broadway offerings, Brown has been honored with Tony Awards for best score for both Parade and The Bridges of Madison County, also scoring a Tony for orchestrating the latter. Sadly, those shows were not commercial successes despite their rapturous scores. Other musicals13 andHoneymoon in Vegascame and went quickly. Last year 13 was adapted as a feature film, now awaiting release, so that show's poppy-emo score that captures the pain of adolescence to a tee may yet find a wider audience.
Back to 1995, when Songs for a New World marked Brown's emergence as a major talent. What was the magic? A gift for beautiful yet wholly accessible melody, and for lyrics that seamlessly merge poetic phrases with the language of the workaday world. The issues raised by the songs are specific to the character who sings it, while being relatable to anyone who has had much experience with life. That was 1995, but those themes remain relevant today.
Some numbers place moral issues they raise into historical contexts which render their messages timeless. "On the Deck of a Spanish Sailing Ship, 1942", positions waves of fear and wonder felt by the ship's crew as they embark upon a world new to them, a pivot point in history that gave birth, through a path strewn with horrible and glorious deeds, to this present day. In "The Flagmaker, 1775" a woman struggles to fend off her worst fears for her son and husband at war against the redcoats, but she could as well have a loved one engaged in our recent military campaign in Afghanistan. "Flying Home" reveals the heartbreak felt when those worst fears are realized, an affliction as real today as in 1775.
"The Steam Train" introduces us to a young Black man (Dwight Xaveir Leslie) with ambitions of greatness on the basketball court. He sings with bravado, but between verses tosses out statistics that reveal the true odds against a kid like him ending up not in jail and not dead. In "King of the World" we again meet a Black man (also Leslie), perhaps the same man, declaring all he could accomplish in lifeif only he was not incarcerated, expressing a clear sense that injustice that has been done to him and to those whose lives he could build if he were free. These sketches of life in 1995 feel a lot like 2021.
Other songs relate to more intimate experiences. In "Christmas Lullaby", Janely Rodriguez is a Latina teenager out on her own, expressing a range of feelings about the baby growing within her. Joey Miller is a college student for whom "The World Was Dancing" is his strategy for avoiding wrong turns in life. "Stars and the Moon" may be Brown's best known song, owing to recordings by Audra McDonald and Betty Buckley. It is an entire story told in a song, of a woman looking back at choices she made at the expense of deeply felt love, with Rajané Katurah delivering her own soaring version.
Humor is sprinkled throughout, with some numbers more clearly meant to draw laughs. A woman in "Just One Step" cries out for attention from a man who seems immune to her growing desperation. Later, a woman known to us all, Mrs. Claus, has similar complaints about her husband, but chooses liberation over self-pity in "Surabaya Santa," a brilliant parody of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weil. Both of these are truly funnyespecially as delivered by Elise Benson, a nasally challenged New Yorker in the former, and Deidre Cochran, whose déclassé Mrs. Claus brings down the house.
Artistry's production of Songs for a New World has been staged by a triad of directors: Vanessa Brooke Agnes, Colleen Somerville, and Max Wojtanowicz. I cannot say who contributed what, or how the directorial duties were divided, but they have achieved a coherent vision for the show. They also have made a pair of significant alterations. One is the addition of a dancer, performed by Elly Stahlke. She is the first person we see on stage and remains visible throughout most of the show, embroidering each song and the story it tells. True, all of the cast members utilize movement in their numbers, with Kelli Foster Warder credited as movement coordinator. Leslie and Miller in particular bringing their considerable talent as dancers to their scenes. However, Stahlke's dance stands above and apart from the scenes, a kinetic framing device that emphasizes the common element of changes that abruptly alter our lives, bringing us to the shores of a new world. Stahlke, a lithe, graceful dancer, shines in an extended dance piece late in the show that seems to stamp her signature across the diverse array of scenes that precede it.
Another significant change is casting the show with actors taking turns in the spotlight and backing up one another's voices, as opposed to a cast of four, as originally written. There are benefits to be had in Artistry's approach. The songs can be more closely matched to the unique talents of each performer. In addition to those mentioned above, Joshua Hinck has a warm presence and Brandon A Jackson's booming voice perfectly suits the spirituality embedded in "On the Deck of a Spanish Sailing Ship, 1492." And, of course, the audience has the pleasure of seeing and hearing not four, but eight wonderful actor-singers. After a long draught without live theater, the more the better, right?
On the other hand, with eight rather than four performers, it is hard to track anything in the way of character. The original production of Songs for a New World lists four charactersMan 1, Woman 1, Man 2 and Woman 2, with each song assigned to one (or, in a couple cases, more) of those four. Though lacking names or other identifying characteristics, Brown has said that from the start to the end, the intent is for the audience to see an arc in each character's ability to accept and embrace the moment of change. Artistry's presentation maintains that general theme, but without a sense of characters who, under different guises, make that journey. It is a subtle but meaningful distinction.
Somehow I have gotten this far without giving enormous credit to Anita Ruth, Artistry's resident music director, who delivers, with a seven-member orchestra, beautiful renditions of Brown's music. The piano-heavy score greatly benefits from pianist Kate Brown, at once elegant and exuberant. The physical production is simple, with four free-standing doors on stage that are wheeled around to create different spatial divisions, while other doors hang to form a screen between the orchestra and actors, all representing the point of entry or departure, those flashpoints of change in our lives. Karin Olson's lighting design aids in creating changes in mood and focus from one scene to the next.
Songs for a New World will draw in those who already know the exquisite songs Jason Robert Brown has created over the past 25 years. For those not familiar with his work, it is an excellent introduction, served up by a top-notch crew of theater performers and musicians. The message eloquently speaks to our times, with changemuch of it not of our choosingan increasingly frequent visitor to our lives. This production does not shed new light on that theme, but certainly presents it in an highly entertaining and skillfully crafted package.
Songs for a New World runs through September 26, 2021, at Artistry, Bloomington Center for the Arts, 1800 West Old Shakopee Road, Bloomington MN. Tickets: $40.00 - $47.00; Seniors (age 62 and up): $35.00 - $42.00; Youth (age 12 and under): $15.00; Next Generation (age 13 - 30): $20.00. "Pay What You Can" performance on Monday, September 20. For tickets and information, call 952-563-8375 or visit artistrymn.org.
Music and lyrics: Jason Robert Brown; Original orchestrations: Brian Besterman and Jason Robert Brown; Directors: Vanessa Brooke Agnes, Colleen Somerville and Max Wojtanowicz; Music Director and Conductor: Anita Ruth; Movement Director and Consulting Producer: Kelli Foster Warder; Scenic Concept and Properties Manager: Katie Phillips; Lighting Design: Karin Olson; Wardrobe Styling and Artistic Associate: Maureen Sherman-Mendez; Sound Design and Engineer: Nicholas Tranby; Stage Manager: Rachael Rhoades; Assistant Stage Manager: Jaya Robilard; Productional Manager and Technical Director: Chris Carpenter; General Manager and Associate Producer: Aaron Wheelers.
Cast: Elise Benson, Deidre Cochran, Joshua Hinck, Brandon A. Jackson, Rajané Katurah, Dwight Xaveir Leslie, Joey Miller, Janely Rodriguez, Elly Stahlke.