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Sound Advice Reviews

A World of New Shades of Brown:
Songs for a New World
Review by Rob Lester


Ghostlight Records

Once upon a musical time, approximately a quarter of a century ago, Songs for a New World opened up a whole new world for composer/lyricist/pianist Jason Robert Brown, who had just celebrated his own quarter-century mark of being alive (give or take just a few months). Although a Toronto tryout (1994) and the follow-up Manhattan mounting (the next year) had a limited number of performances, many more musical theatre fans first discovered the bright Brown talents with the original recording, made in early 1996, but not released until more than a year later.

Now, happily, we have a second cast recording to recycle this song cycle by the the guy who has given us, in the last 25 years, The Last 5 Years, 13, Honeymoon in Vegas, and Parade (one of his path-crossings with director Hal Prince, for whom he'd been rehearsal pianist on Kiss of the Spider Woman—even before the original Songs for a New World helmed by Daisy Prince). And, more recently, he's been represented on Broadway by his score to Bridges of Madison County and contributions to Mr. Prince's career retrospective, Prince of Broadway.

All these years later, while Jason happens to working with Daisy on a new show called The Connector, his youthful work still sounds fresh and crackling with intensity in the new recording birthed by last year's several performances in New York City as part of City Center's Encores! Off-Center series. The challenging repertoire shines in committed, fierce, fully realized renditions by very strong performers: Shoshana Bean, Colin Donnell, Mykal Kilgore, and Solea Pfeiffer with direction by Kate Whoriskey. Thanks to all creative parties, and featuring a killer band with Tom Murray credited as music director, we have a worthy next-generation take on these numbers, only about half of which were written specifically for the production for the original production—the others were crafted in even earlier times for musicals that didn't happen or as isolated numbers.

These singers are definitely up to the task of handling of these (mostly) demandingly dramatic story-songs. For the most part, the musical vignettes provide a field day for vocal powerhouse moments. Thankfully, the renditions don't reek of overindulgent melodrama or showboating, because the frequently heavy, angsty, cathartic, quickly poured-out storytelling or philosophical explorations inherent in the material can handle—and seem appropriate for—a grand, full-force approach. Arguably, with such weighty topics as hopelessness, break-ups, resentment toward parents, imprisonment, professional failures, unfaithful lovers, and several flavors of desperation and possible death, underplaying and matriculating in the "less is more" school of thought might have sometimes been refreshingly employed more. But there is plenty of nuance and calibration; not everything starts or soon stays at a fever pitch. Some will find over-the-top moments, but, overall, this gifted cast would be hard to top. They all dig into the material, and there are brave and touching actor choices that more often feel real rather than predictable, transparent or glib. When singers share numbers or provide bended harmonies in support of whomever is taking the lead, the results don't sound competitive.

While there are the dark swaths and fits of rage and rue in these tales of "hitting the wall" and facing the unknown New World, the primary impression remains a life-affirming one. Earnestness and fortitude rule the day. And a willingness to confront conflicts and accept risk and failure makes the burdened characters both heroic and oh so human. We admire them and/or sympathize.

Shoshana Bean, who has done concert appearances with Brown, has a palpable comfort level owning her assignments here; they include the broad comic relief numbers as the self-pitying whiny wife threatening suicide with "Just One Step" off the precipice and the witty Kurt Weill/Bertolt Brecht parody with the desperate housewife who is Mrs. Claus addressing "Surabaya Santa" (monologue within this co-credited to Kristine Zbornik). But her Ms. Bean's side gets fine exposure, too. The most-covered item in the set is one of these and falls to her: The saga of seductive materialism in marriage versus depth and romantic appreciation of things like "Stars and the Moon" may never find a more movingly wistful storytelling interpreter than Jessica Molaskey, who sang it in the mid-1990s staging, but the earthy, direct Bean approach has its punch. Solea Pfeiffer presents a sublimely lovely sound that is radiant, bringing a felicitous coloration and warmth to her work, becoming quite captivating and vulnerable facing new motherhood with "Christmas Lullaby," and tenderness instead of simply a strutting self-satisfaction to "I'm Not Afraid of Anything." Notes linger in the air with marvelous afterglow.

Colin Donnell takes perhaps the most "actorly" approach, grabbing tight onto lines with potential for pith and pensiveness, cataloguing changes of mood and shining a flashlight on "aha!" moments. His singing and presence have appealing vigor. In sections of his solo "She Cries" and in the throbbing duet with Miss Pfeiffer, "I'd Give It All for You," he recalls the performance style/sound of Brown himself, which also means commanding and electric. Mykal Kilgore delivers dynamic and dazzling work, fearless in many spots, and turns on a dime to switch to heartbreaking lament, a strong and defiant stance masking a fragile or bitter persona. Embroidered at times with elements of embellished vocal delivery, he is impressive and feisty, with his "King of the World" a king-sized highlight with tension, determination, and, finally, heartbreak. "Flying Home" finds him soaring in all senses of the word. (References to—and musical propulsion suggesting—flying, falling, sailing, running, or moving at dizzying speeds are prevalent throughout the selections.) Indeed, it was already apparent in the mid-1990s that melodies and accompaniment with prominent and accelerating rhythmic drive and push is a Jason Robert Brown trademark, coming wave by wave to crest and climax.

Multi-talented multi-tasker that he is, Brown deserves a big chunk of our applause for this non-redundant revisit. He is hands-on for this hands-down triumph, with his own expanded orchestrations and, like the first time around, is part of the recording's producing team, as is is Jeffrey Lesser. Bassist Randy Landau, a part of so many Brown projects, including studio recordings and concert work as a key member of his group The Caucasian Rhythm Kings, is again on his instrument and is on fire. You might call this venerable veteran the anchor here, not just because of seniority, but by force of presence. Brown himself would have to be acknowledged as the original cast album's instrumental centerpiece, being also the bandleader and pianist as well as arranger then, as one of six players. At the piano is James Sampliner, who has worked on other Brown-connected projects on keyboards, as conductor, or orchestrator: Honeymoon in Vegas, Prince of Broadway, and The Last 5 Years (Long Wharf, Connecticut). The new version boasts a band of nine, with, notably, new layers of rich emotion provided by two violins, viola and cello. (Side note on sidemen: the guitarist at the August 2018 recording sessions, Michael Aarons, is the sole member who was not part of the Encores! Off-Center live run in the last days of June.)

Newbies to New World or those with a perfunctory or partial acquaintance should know this was originally, and is now, a score handled by four singers, soloing in stand-alone songs as well as combining forces, but not as recurring characters. However, in interviews, the writer has stated that the unnamed folks assigned to one of the four could be related or basically the same at later/earlier points in life. The points they are at in a song is the point—the common thread is that we meet the oft-troubled people at breaking points, turning points, facing a fork in the road of life, a key moment of decision or realization, in their control or not. When it's time to "face the music," they are facing "a new world" where things will be different from then on—for better or worse.

Some productions of this piece have used more performers, as did the New York City concert marking its ten-year anniversary; if you happened to casually pick up the physical CD and look at the back cover, you'd see several names of performers billed right under the quartet of vocalists and think that the Encores! corps of singers had also been expanded. No, these are the names of dancers who were part of the proceedings on some numbers. One might logically wonder if the planning for their choreographed movements might have led to the crisply percussive sounds heard in the revised musical settings. Some accents feel more pronounced, bringing some words and feelings in a vast well of fragile and frenetic into even sharper relief and, thus, higher emotional stakes. Or, to the good, laser-beam spotlight for effective emphasis of things that could be lost in the whirlwind of words, melodic figures and ideas.

The wheel has not been radically reinvented, but some things have been rethought. The basic approaches, tempi, and undercurrents are generally similar to the earlier cast album, with musical figures sometimes voiced by a different instrument or grouping or something will be added or reveal a different emphasis.

Although the booklet that comes with this 2-CD set doesn't include the lyrics (easily findable online and worth following along with), the pages instead give us the writer's own affectionate recollections of the show and his own early musical worlds that influenced and inspired him, with some humor in the hindsight, such as an unhappy neighbor complaining about late-night piano sounds coming through the walls as he toiled for hours to finish creating a number.

Capturing universal themes and defining, dramatically decisive moments in life means that Songs for a New World never gets old. Songs has already had a healthy life. It continues to be a popular choice. For example, next week you can find it at The Point in Hampshire, England, while April will see it in a venue called Woodstock (Ontario, Canada), such American venues as The Gathering (Muncie, Indiana), and as the first offering by the new Berlin Theatre (Germany). The songs still have a lot to say.

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