Twenty years after it first premiered Off-Broadway, the song-cycle / revue Songs For A New World at the St James Theatre serves as a useful introduction to composer-lyricist Jason Robert Brown’s early work.
It’s initially exciting to watch four accomplished performers (mostly) handle his vocally demanding work. But the effect of 90 minutes of his music straight through makes you feel as if you are trapped in a world that is a bit repetitive.
It starts out spectacularly with the opening number “The New World”, a song about starting over. And then there is a song about endings, another about loss, and another about new beginnings. By the half way point, the limitations of the music become apparent.
If the songs weren’t sung by a different singer you could be forgiven for thinking you were hearing the same song. There is often an interval in this revue (which would give everyone a break), but here the decision was made to plough on through.
It is not easy music to sing. In what seems to be unnecessary cruelty to performers they climb scales into pitches you would not think possible for humans to sing (let alone hear).
Jenna Russell comes off best as she gets the songs with the best laughs, including the strange and comic Surabaya-Santa. It does not seem to fit with the rest of the cycle, but at least provides some humour, which Russell is a natural at handling.
As expected Damian Humbley and Cynthia Erivo are incredibly accomplished with the numbers they are given, even if their allocated songs don’t seem to highlight their vocal talents. Meanwhile Dean John-Wilson gives the show some vocal contrast which worked really well with the jazzier songs he had to sing. Under the music direction of Daniel A. Weiss the band sounds great too.
For what could have been a simple staged concert there is a particularly lavish set. But there are some curious staging choices. The singers were often placed at odd angles, disconnecting the audience from the performers.
All told an interesting but not entirely enjoyable piece covering Jason Robert Brown's early work. He would go on to write Parade, The Last Five Years, The Bridges of Madison County and Honeymoon in Vegas. You could be forgiven for underestimating his contribution to musical theatre after seeing this.
Songs For A New World runs at the St James Theatre until 8 August.
Photo credit: production photo