By Erik Nikander
Songs for a New World grapples with the jumble of emotions prompted by the end of the pandemic, while also serving as a potent reminder of what a joyful experience musical theater can be.
Songs for a New World by Jason Robert Brown. Directed by Paul Daigneault. A benefit production for the SpeakEasy Stage Company, streaming through June 8.
We are all at a crossroads. With COVID-19 vaccination numbers rising and cases steadily dropping, it seems as if things might finally return to normal. This is a relief especially for those who make a living in the arts; after a year and a half of closed performance venues, many are itching for the chance to create and experience theater live and in person once again. We may not be quite there yet, but it feels as if we’re on the cusp of a return to the customary.SpeakEasy Stage’s production of a virtual version of Jason Robert Brown’s Songs for a New World fits our moment of transition perfectly. The play grapples with the jumble of emotions prompted by the end of the pandemic while also serving as a potent reminder of what a joyful experience musical theater can be.
Songs for a New World is a piece that’s difficult to categorize. It’s not quite a musical play because it lacks recurring characters and a narrative through-line. Yet the songs aren’t so disconnected that it comes across as a revue. Each musical number is animated by a sense of change and uncertainty; they often depict people who are about to make a choice to cross a threshold into something different — a new way of living. The concept is nothing if not flexible: it gives Brown the freedom to explore different narrative devices and musical genres without being confined to a rigid narrative. It also provides SpeakEasy the chance to put forward plenty of talented performers. The piece is usually staged with a cast of four, but the company’s nine-person ensemble adapts to its structure without a hitch.
The best songs are those that are inspired by a brilliant kernel of musical storytelling, such as “Just One Step,” a number performed with rapid-fire bravado by Laura Marie Duncan. This song centers on a woman who’s fed up with her marriage to a wealthy and unfeeling man: she threatens to end it all by jumping off a skyscraper. Both the structure of the tune and Duncan’s performance underline the situation’s tension and uncertainty; it’s funny and frightening all at once. Another highlight is “The Steam Train,” featuring Dwayne P. Mitchell as a teenage basketball player who’s determined to take the world by storm. This character could come off as overly cocky in the wrong hands, but Mitchell grounds his confidence as a response to the rough upbringing he’s had to overcome. He makes us feel how deeply the character believes in himself, and by the end of the song we believe in him too.
Many of the best songs are dramatically precise and specific, but Brown can handle more ambiguous territory as well. “King of the World,” a memorable piece from the second half of the show, is performed with righteous fervor by Davron S. Monroe. Taken on its own, the song is a story of a man who is demanding to be released from a prison, to be set free and allowed to seek his true potential. Director Paul Daigneault, however, builds on the tune’s emotional foundation to add a political point. Monroe, who is Black, wears a t-shirt that reads “Stop Killing Us” while performing the number. This detail puts the entire song in a new light, grounding its sense of yearning in the context of a Black Lives Matter world.
It is plain that Songs for a New World was devised early in Brown’s career. Its assortment of songs reflect the effort of a skilled but inexperienced young artist trying out different musical styles and subjects in order to see which suit him best creatively. These experiments are successful most of the time, but on occasion a song doesn’t quite measure up. Some of the tunes are pleasant enough though they don’t leave a strong impression. Others just don’t comfortably fit in. “Surabaya-Santa,” from the show’s second half, is an odd, Kurt Weill-inspired number where a dissatisfied Mrs. Claus makes it clear to us that Santa is a lackluster husband. It’s a funny sequence, but its connections to the play’s central themes are muddled, to say the least. That said, Jennifer Ellis digs into its cabaret extravagance with such verve that it’s hard not to grin along.
Filmed on-stage in the Calderwood Pavilion with video production design by Wesley Verge, Songs for a New World is shot in a straightforward manner with few fancy flourishes. The occasional use of fades to superimpose performers beside each other is as complicated as the editing gets. This technique works so well that it’s hard not to wish for a little more experimentation. Still, even without dramatic camera angles or flashy editing tricks, the technical presentation showcases a great deal of skill. Andrew Duncan Will’s audio engineering is clear and precise, keeping the vocalists in perfect balance with the orchestra, which we see playing in the background from time to time. It might not be quite the same as experiencing the production in person, but SpeakEasy provides the next best thing — a virtual front-row seat.
The return to normalcy (or some version of it) after a global pandemic is likely to come with its share of bumps in the road. Taking that into account, Songs for a New World is a comforting piece — it reminds us that moments of change, no matter when or where they happen, are often followed by a sense of fear and trepidation. But it also makes clear that a shakeup can also be a source of excitement, of boundless possibility. As theatregoers around the world eagerly anticipate getting our butts back in theater seats, SpeakEasy reminds us that it will be well worth the wait.
Erik Nikander is a critic, playwright, and filmmaker based in the New England area. His film criticism can be read on Medium and his video reviews on a variety of topics can be viewed on Youtube at EWN Reviews.