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Raleigh Little Theatre presents for its outdoor musical this spring the work, Songs for a New World, written and composed by Jason Robert Brown. When director Nancy Rich chose Songs for a New World, she made a choice that every single director who stages a musical must make. That choice is, do I cast singers who dance, or do I cast dancers who sing?
It is clear that Rich chose the former. Of these eight cast members, each holds an impressive set of pipes, with dynamic ranges and the abilities to both solo and blend with intelligence and ease. The downside of this, however, is that the choreography for these 19 new songs is not as bright, tight, or spectacular as it might have been; and this may be one reason that these new songs failed to hold our imaginations.
The New World that Brown writes of is, of course, America; but it is not by any means simply Early America. In Act I, the first song, “On the Deck of a Spanish Sailing Ship, 1492,” is a company piece led by Jeff Enoch as the captain of a ship looking for a new world. It is followed in sharp contrast by “Just One Step,” a song sung by Dena Byers with gusto and required drama; but the set jumps from 1492 to a 50-storey apartment high-rise in downtown Manhattan.
Brown writes his 19 stories using new eyes, but not necessarily better ones. “Stars & the Moon,” sung by Staci Sabarsky, tells the tale of a woman who waits for what she always wanted and, when the time comes, gets it. The problem is, having is not nearly so exciting as wanting. In the same vein, a man who cannot resist the tears of his love sings a passionate warning to mankind in “She Cries,” a warning to never let the “waterworks” get under your skin, gentlemen. Robert Steinberg and Sabarsky both have what they sought; but they find that, and having now received it, they were wrong.
“The River Won’t Flow” brings the company together in a fast, jazzy number that indicates that the pump must be primed, because when it comes to getting money, “The river won’t flow for you.” The full cast comes together as Enoch and Steinberg are joined by Alexander Hunt and Jaret Preston; and Byers and Sabarsky team with Angie Davis and Ashley Nicole Morris. This return to the stage of the full team makes for the most riveting song of the first act. They move well together but their choreography is simple and inelegant. The Act I full-cast closer, “The Steam Train,” fares a bit better in this regard.
The work is set on the huge outdoor stage of the Louise “Scottie” Stephenson Amphitheatre and is in some ways the best part of the show. Without actually assembling one, scenic designer Rick Young combines a series of masts, yards, and sails to resemble a full-flying sailing vessel. That ship serves as backdrop, light screen and, ultimately, to focus our attention on the fact that the show is a voyage, carrying us from point A to point B.
Act II brings even more conundrums in that every single one of the songs of Act II are, save the final three, downers. As far as performance goes, Dena Byers gives it her all and makes “The Flagmaker, 1775” the highlight of Act II. But the destination of this lengthy voyage seems to be shrouded in fog; we are confronted with war and death and an anthem for the dead before we head for a port and a lullaby for the coming children of a new age. “Hear My Song” tries to tie up loose ends and pass what we have learned on to our children; but as an overall closer of this musical the effort falls short.
Songs for a New World may be just that, a series of tunes that reflect the current situation of the world. The works are entertaining, but as a show the lineup just doesn’t fall together. The work lacks continuity and any real sense of direction. The musicians are excellent, but the show doesn’t allow them to shine enough, either individually or collectively. In its present form, Songs for a New World is in need of a life preserver.
Songs for a New World will complete its two-week run on May 21st and 22nd in Raleigh Little Theatre’s Louise “Scottie” Stephenson Amphitheatre. For details, see our theatre calendar.
Note: For a letter to the editor concerning this review, click here.