St James Theatre, London – until 1 August 2015
Guest Reviewer: Will Clarkson
There is a great deal of debate over how to define a piece like Jason Robert Brown’s iconic debut work; ‘Songs for a New World’. Some see it as a concept album, a young composer experimenting with snippets from a variety of unfinished or dismissed projects, others see it as a thematic song cycle, a collection of ideas about modernity. But in today’s world where song cycles can all too often be a lazy get-out for a composer looking to stage in his songs in a production that desperately needs a good book, it is refreshing to revisit this finely crafted work in a 20th anniversary staging of the show that truly defined Brown as a master in understanding the human condition.
The vocal work on display at the St James Theatre is excellent, not least in the performance of Jenna Russell as Woman 2. Russell gives a masterclass in her solo numbers, showing a virtuoso understanding of pacing and pay off. She manoeuvres the comedy of songs such as ‘Just One Step’ and ‘Surabaya Santa’ with subtlety and hilarious effect, whilst her ‘Stars and Moon’ was affable, beautiful and deeply sad all at once. Damian Humbley also impresses and gives some much needed depth to his numbers. He plays the perfect combination of frustration and self-loathing in ‘She Cries’ and finds the identifiable humanity in the ‘The World Was Dancing’ that keeps the songs from descending into the unpalatable.
Cynthia Erivo’s stunning upper register soars in Woman 1’s material, flowing with ease and clarity through the challenging vocal leaps of songs such as ‘Christmas Lullaby’. Dean John-Wilson also impresses vocally, tackling the nefariously difficult Man 1 with confidence. His tone and soft notes were delightful, whilst he also showcased his ability to let rip in the show-stopping ‘Flying Home’.
Whilst the singing is par excellence, there is a drift in Adam Lenson’s direction. All four actors are ever-present on stage, but their presence rarely feels like it adds to the action. Lenson seems content to let his actors leave their hands in their pockets and shrug their way through songs. It does the piece a disservice as there is a definite disconnect between some of the passion and intensity of Brown’s score and the accompanying dramatic display on stage.
This production is defined however by Brown’s score itself. Even 20 years on, the music has the punch and eclectic elasticity to feel incredibly current. The styles range from swooping love ballad to rhythm and blues and the excitement of Brown’s melodic harmonies never ceases to garner a spine-tingling response. It helps that alongside the actors, that Brown’s melodies are delivered by a fantastic set of musicians. Daniel A. Weiss’ band drives with intensity and suspense, deftly handling the changing styles and emotions of Brown’s multifarious score.
Songs For A New World is as exciting to listen to now as it ever was and with this cast it deserves to be seen.
Runs until 8th August