EDITOR’S NOTE: Due to a computer glitch, this review, originally published on Feb. 16, was erased from Broome Arts Mirror. It is being reprinted (in updated form) for archival purposes.
By George Basler
Songs for a New World is not a show in which audiences see spectacular dancing or gaudy production numbers. Instead, it’s an intimate musical filled with stylistically varied songs built loosely around the theme of people being faced with moments of time that force them to make key decisions.
This makes for an unconventional show that requires a sparse staging and performers who can tackle a vocally demanding score.
A fine production, which played last month at the Endicott Performing Arts Center, succeeded on both counts. The low-key direction by Lorraine Tennant highlighted the songs’ moods in a way that augmented the performances. The five-person cast, meanwhile, provided nuanced and powerful renditions of songs ranging from poignant ballads to rousing anthems to satirical send-ups of urban angst.
Songs for a New World is the work of Jason Robert Brown, who was only 25 when the show first opened Off Broadway in 1995. While the musical had only a short run, it has acquired a passionate fan base over the years. Likewise, Brown has gone on to write critically acclaimed scores for musicals that include Parade, The Bridges of Madison County and The Last Five Years.
In explaining Songs for a New World, Brown has said, “It’s about one moment. It’s about hitting the wall and having to make a choice, or take a stand, or turn around and go back.” Whether he hits this mark is open to debate. From my perspective, he falls short in connecting the songs together in a coherent way.
So, it’s best to stop looking for an integrated theme, and instead treat the show as a concert. judging each song on its own terms. And the songs are so good, and the EPAC performances were so strong, that EPAC’s production was an emotionally satisfactory experience despite the lack of narrative structure.
Brown’s most notable achievement is creating songs that are not only pleasing to the ear, but also tell compelling stories. This means performers not only have sing well but capture the emotional resonance of each number. The EPAC cast — Lorraine Bennett, Madyson Paige Fedoris, Dustin VanTassel, Vito Longo and Christopher DaCosta — succeeded admirably.
VanTassal gave a soulful and moving performance of “On the Deck or a Spanish Sailing Ship, 1492” near the musical’s start. Bennett brought a gorgeous voice to her numbers, notably “I’m Not Afraid of Anything” and “I’d Give It All for You.” The latter was a duet with Longo, a first-rate performer and singer in his own right. Fedoris was skillfully saucy in the show’s most humorous songs. She also did a fine job with the poignant “Stars and the Moon,” arguably the musical’s best-known number.
And DaCosta left a lasting impression with his energetic and intense performances of two key songs, “The Steam Train” and “King of the World.” He also led the entire cast in “Flying Home,” a powerful song with gospel overtones that came near the end of the show.
Credit also goes to a fine backing orchestra directed by Sonny DeWitt. DeWitt also plays the keyboard with John Cockerill on piano, Mike McManamon on drums land Tyler Valet on bass.
In the end, the talent on display in EPAC’s intimate setting is really the highlight of the show. It was a fine effort.