Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Songs for a New World
In the liner notes for the original cast recording, Brown says the songs in the show are all based on specific "moments" in the characters' lives when they have to make a specific decision or choice "or take a stand, or turn around and go back." While there are a few comedic numbers, most of the songs cover some heavy momentsincluding death, suicide attempts and the ending of a relationship. But Brown doesn't wallow in the despair of the situations, instead showing that the songs are really about survival, or surviving past the moment when the decision is made and finding the "new world" that each character needs to discover once that specific moment in their life has passed. While most of the songs were originally written for other musical works that never came to fruition, Brown did write a recurring theme that opens the show, appropriately called "The New World," which is used effectively several times throughout as a transition piece.
Director Jere Van Patten assembled a fairly good group of vocalists who deliver the nineteen songs in the show. While the original production only used four singers, Van Patten increased the number to ten. The increased cast size meant many of the songs had the benefit of a rich added choral component and some thrilling harmonies when backup vocals were required.
Carly Kastner scored with her two numbers, delivering "Stars and the Moon" expertly. She provided just the right amount of comic delivery to a few of the lyrics to get the humor beneath them. But she didn't let that overpower the emotional resonance of the story of a woman who realizes that what she thought was important when she was much younger made her miss out on what she should have really been searching for. Kastner also provided plenty of comedy and angst to the woes of Mrs. Claus, who is tired of spending Christmas alone in "Surabaya Santa."
Jonathan Holdsworth hit some amazing high notes in "Flying Home," and was emotionally moving in this song of a man hearing the angels calling him home. Kinsey Peotter couldn't have been given two songs that were more different to show her abilities and range. She expertly delivered with aplomb the comedic "Just One Step" about a wealthy New York wife threatening to jump off a penthouse balcony, and was very affective on "The Flagmaker, 1775" where she became a mother, intently focused on sewing a flag to take her attention off thoughts of her family fighting overseas. Her continued delivery of the lyrics "one more star, one more stripe," and the repetitive movement of her hand quickly sewing a large flag, were thrilling. Emily Kaye sang beautifully on "Christmas Lullaby" and Dave Ray and Cecily Jorgensen achieved some excellent vocals on the duet "I'd Give It All for You," which tells the story of a couple who find each other again after being separated, and wondering if they are actually better off together. Laynee Overall and Taylor Hudson were mainly used in the ensemble, but both have excellent voices and I'm curious to see what they'll be cast in next.
Aaron Dilley's two story set included stairs, an arrangement of risers, and an abundance of set pieces and props that allowed Van Patten to take what is usually a small show and expand it into one that fills a normal auditorium sized stage without sacrificing any of the emotion of the lyrics. This was far from a production with just a few people, sitting on stools at center stage and singing these songs. Van Patten "opened up" and staged many of the songs in a more theatrical way, setting each song in a specific time and place with just the combination of a few set pieces, props, costumes and lighting. He also added plenty of movement to the numbers, with his actors moving around the stage during many of the numbers, providing a richer experience than one in which four actors sat and sang in the center of the stage. But he wisely didn't add unnecessary movement for the more emotionally focused numbers, letting ones like "Stars and the Moon" stand on their own with very limited movement. He also presented some breathtaking visuals during the "The Flagmaker, 1775" by projecting large, moving photos of various service men and women, throughout history, that filled the large scrim covering the set while Peotter was spotlighted up on the second story walkway. While it might have been slightly different from the rest of the staging of the show, it connected the past to the present and made you think of all of the people with family members fighting overseas through the ages.
Music Director Cathy Hauan led an amazing five-piece band that couldn't have been better or provided a richer sound for Brown's songs. Troy Buckey's lighting design was extremely effective in moving us from one location and song to the next, and Aurelie P. Flores's costumes were abundant and crossed many periods. Taryn Reed provided a few effective moments of choreography.
There were a few downsides in the production. While the band was well amplified, some of the microphone levels for the vocalists were set low, which made lyrics become garbled or lost under the accompaniment. Also, a couple of the singers, while completely capable of hitting some nice high notes didn't have voices that were as full, rich or as well rounded as others in the cast.
The MCC production of Songs for a New World was an emotionally rewarding experience with a talented cast, inventive and thoughtful direction, a superb band, and excellent creative elements. I'm excited to see what they will do with another song cycle, Edges, written by two other composers in their early 20s, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, which will be presenting in September.
The Mesa Community College production of Songs for a New World ran July 16 26th, 2014 at the MCC Southern & Dobson Campus at 1833 W. Southern Avenue in Mesa. Information for their upcoming productions of Edges and Hairspray can be found at www.mesacc.edu/departments/music/music-theatre.
Music and Lyrics by Jason Robert Brown