I was almost giddy to see the 20th Anniversary of Jason Robert Brown’s song cycle, Songs For A New World on Friday night. The St. James’ Theatre was buzzing, and it couldn’t have been a more perfect venue for this stunning 4 cast show, featuring Cynthia Erivo (Woman 1), Jenna Russell (Woman 2), Damian Humbley (Man 2) and Dean-John Wilson (Man 1)
Knowing these songs inside out, and having seen several staged productions of it in America, I was curious to see Adam Lenson’s take on it. The set was done up almost like a vacant, run down, apartment, with one door and 4 huge windows. Each actor was on stage for the entire non-stop 90 minute show. They had their own cardboard box of valuables that they rummaged through at various points. Certain props were used to highlight aspects of the character, like Man 1 who sings Steam Train carrying around a basketball and dreaming of going pro, whilst others were more cryptic. The staging seemed to happen haphazardly in the middle of songs. Actors would rearrange pieces of the set before settling in a different space. Sometimes they noticed each other, and sang to each other, and other times they were invisible.
Let’s be clear: this show is tough. It doesn’t really give you a stitched together story line as much as it offers a sharing platter of various moments in various lives. Where most musicals only have a handful of show stoppers or an actor only has one key song with one ‘money note’, this song cycle, is relentless; every song is demanding, and every vocalist’s stamina is tested. Even the Oliver Award winning favourite, Jenna Russell, sang a few notes down the octave, or shorter than written, and even forgot a lyric. But you forgive those little flaws, because her storytelling was impeccable and, oh yeah, because Songs for A New World is tough. The more rookie actor in the cast, Dean-John Wilson, (who I first took note of in Here Lies Love) definitely had the hardest vocal track, and he lived up to the challenge with his more contemporary vocal style. Damian Humbley provided a more legit, British musical theatre sound, that was definitely a crowd pleaser in the song, She Cries. But the real stand out for me was Cynthia Erivo. She opens and closes the show with a voice that could melt your soul. It’s obvious to see why this outstanding actress and singer is transferring to Broadway in the fall to perform with the likes of Jennifer Hudson in The Colour Purple. She was captivating in her effortless approach to the songs. Her voice told a story that could be both gentle and powerful. I’ve never seen a more honest storyteller, particularly in Christmas Lullaby (a song I would typically skip when it comes on my iTunes). Her rendition left me with streaming mascara and full body goosebumps for the rest of the night. Each of the cast should be commended for carrying these songs. Even when they weren’t soloing, they were giving everything to those crunchy, complicated harmony lines that are as hard as hell!
Not only is this a tough show to stage and to sing, it’s also tough to play. The MD, Daniel A. Weiss, nailed it! He particularly rocked the beast that is King Of The World. I’m sure his hand will be bleeding from playing that gliss every night!
Whilst the concept was clever, I think the staging only over complicated things. The blocking distracted more than it supported. It was clear from the Director’s Note that Lenson loves this show, and he was thorough in finding details in the songs that he then used to make links (like the baseball for Man 2 and the letter for Woman 2, are all key props that ‘pass the baton’ in a way throughout the show), but far too often I found myself trying to follow and decipher the meaning in the movements rather than the songs. In an attempt to do something ‘new’ I think Lenson may have missed the simple beauty of this show: it’s a song cycle and the songs tell the story. Ultimately, the show could have used some stillness.
If you have 90 minutes to spare some evening, you’ll want to see this show, if only to be swept off your feet by Jason Robert Brown’s music and the gorgeous, thoughtful way in which each actor sings their story. It’s only running until 8th of August so don’t wait!
Reviewed by Ruthie Luff
Photo: Darren Bell
Songs For a New World is playing at the St James Theatre until 8 August 2015. Click here for tickets