November 2006

Songs for A New World
Music, Lyrics and Composition by Jason Robert Brown

Directed by Chris Abraham

November 21 – December 16, 2006Young Centre for The Performing ArtsToronto
Talented Quartet of Performers Burn with Intensity & Earnestness
in a well-intentioned remounting of Jason Robert Brown’s mid-nineties Musical Theatre opus….
by Lesley Mitchell-Clarke
Currently onstage at one of our city’s true jewels of a performance space, The Young Centre for The Performing Arts, is a brand new mounting of the Jason Robert Brown musical, Songs for a New World. Los Angeles and Spoleto, Italy based, Brown has had a stellar career, laden with hit musicals (such as Parade), theatrical laurels and prestigious awards of all sorts, as well as the inevitable comparisons by major critics of Brown to our finest 20th century theatrical composer, Stephen Sondheim. Based on the material in Songs For a New World, Mr. Brown, able composer that he may be, is certainly no Sondheim. Originally produced Off-Broadway in 1995 (under the direction of Daisy Prince), this show has generated terrific appeal, and has been presented more than 200 times throughout the world.
In the current Toronto production, the stark, conceptual stage design is mood-invoking and intriguing, as is the accompanying lighting design, both by Beth Kates. Projections Designer Ben Chaisson has created magical oceanic effects against the unyielding brick back wall of the performance space, while a small wooden ship is suspended in rear center stage, creating an unsettling and surrealistic element within the fog-laden mise en scene.

The super-talented cast includes Thom Allison, Jason Knight, Sharron Matthews and Tracy Machailidis — the original cast from the Canadian debut in 2000. All four actors share a strong performance chemistry and bring a wealth of professional experience as well as major vocal and movement chops to the table. Unflappably earnest, they all seemed to be set on ‘stun’ from the beginning of the show — a difficult place to start, as it can’t help but result in nowhere to go, which ends up with both the performers and the audience unable to make the journey, or to experience any sort of arc within the character development or action of the play.

As the title suggests, Songs for a New World is considered a 'song cycle', and is propelled and conveyed (sans dialogue) exclusively by the music of the composer, making it all the more challenging for the actors to create fully realized characters with the emotional peaks and valleys that are necessary for a genuine and memorable performance. A good rule of thumb might be: Only one ‘Eleven O’clock Number’ in any given twenty-four hour period. Anything more than that, as is the case with this show, can simply exhaust the audience.

In all fairness, I have no doubt that during the course of this well-put together run, the exceptional performers will find their own rhythms, as well as the peripatetic zeitgeist of the play. Songs for a New World is produced by Clyde Wagner for Colour & Light Productions and directed by one of our leading theatrical and cinematic lights, DORA Award winner, Chris Abraham. Uber-gifted Chris is a serious multi-tasker this fall with the hit Insomnia simultaneously onstage at Buddy’s in Bad Times Theatre.

It was wonderfully refreshing to hear the actors’ vocals with such clarity and suitable volume. All too often, theatrical group vocals can sink into a mire of midrange, lacking crispness and definition. This was certainly not the case with John Lott’s sound design, which allowed the audience to perceive the distinctive tonal qualities of each dynamic and unique voice. Musical Director, Noreen Waibel has assembled a stellar trio to accompany the cast. With the piano chair being shared by Ms. Waibel and Ryan De Souza, the group also includes the versatile George Kozub on both electric and acoustic bass, as well as yeoman drummer, Tom Jestadt. I was privileged to see Ryan De Souza on piano during the premiere performance, and was absolutely mesmerized with his (and the ensemble’s) ability to seamlessly shift between diverse musical genres — including jazz, funk, rock, musical-theatre and what could only be described as 90’s Cabaret — something for everyone!

We welcome your comments and feedback
Lesley Mitchell-Clarke
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