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BWW Review: SONGS FOR A NEW WORLD Reveals The Remarkable Artistic Maturity of a Young Jason Robert Brown

Jason Robert Brown was just 25 years old when his SONGS FOR A NEW WORLD took the stage of Off-Broadway's intimate WPA Theatre. As he played piano and led the handful of musicians in director Daisy Prince's production, a quartet of actors who all had big things ahead of them (Brooks Ashmanskas, Andrea Burns, Jessica Molaskey and Billy Porter) revealed the vivid collection of complex and approachable emotions expressed by the extraordinarily relatable collection of characters created by this young man's music and lyrics.

BWW Review: SONGS FOR A NEW WORLD Reveals The Remarkable Artistic Maturity of a Young Jason Robert Brown
Shoshana Bean, Mykal Kilgore, Colin Donnell
and Solea Pfeiffer (Photo: Joan Marcus)

SONGS FOR A NEW WORLD ran for less than a month that autumn of 1995, but soon an almost-original cast album (Porter, due to contractual obligations, was replaced by Ty Taylor) exposed the score more widely to the musical theatre community, and it wasn't long before acting showcases like "Stars and The Moon," "She Cries" and "I'm Not Afraid of Anything" were heard regularly in piano bars and on cabaret stages.

Before the decade ended, Brown was awarded a Tony for his deeply human score for PARADE, which looks at the controversial Leo Frank lynching, giving equal voice to all sides. Soon after, THE LAST 5 YEARS opened Off-Broadway, and once again New York's nightlife performers grabbed at chances to perform another remarkable collection of songs, this time dealing step-by-step with the development and the collapse of a romantic relationship.

Brown picked up Tonys for his score and orchestrations for THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY, but despite enormous popularity among musical theatre lovers, he has never had a commercial hit in New York. Perhaps that's one reason why his fans always seem especially vocal during his frequent appearances in nightclubs and concert halls.

Those vocal fans have gathered in full force at New York City Center this week, as Encores! Off-Center presents director Kate Whoriskey's sublime concert mounting of SONGS FOR A NEW WORLD.

The show has been enhanced a bit for the large City Center stage. Conducted by pianist James Sampliner, music director Tom Murray's nine-piece on-stage orchestra plays Brown's new orchestrations that bring out more of the music's contrasting and blending rock, gospel, chamber and folk textures.

The hip-hop-heavy dancing ensemble choreographed by Rennie Harris (Phil S. Cuttino, Jr., Virgil Gadson, Mai Le Ho, Samantha Shepherd and Danzel Thompson-Stout) nicely enhance the many moods of the piece without overwhelming the material.

The focus, as is should be, is on the characters created by the music and lyrics, performed by a top-shelf quartet of actor/singers. Though each song stands on its own, the recurring theme of opportunities for new beginnings shines brightly. As its opening anthem, "The New World," states, "It's about one moment, / The moment before it all becomes clear. / And in that one moment / You start to believe there's nothing to fear."

BWW Review: SONGS FOR A NEW WORLD Reveals The Remarkable Artistic Maturity of a Young Jason Robert Brown
Shoshana Bean and Company
(Photo: Joan Marcus)

That familiar phrase undoubtedly brings to mind the promise of America, and in these unsettling times when many feel our elected leaders and their associates are taking the country on a destructive path, there are surely thicker emotions felt during the second song, "On The Deck of a Spanish Sailing Ship, 1492," where a captain pleads with the Lord to "Take a look at your children / Who believe in this promised land."

That plea is sung with electrifying passion by the relatively unknown Mykal Kilgore, who bursts with vocal power and warm charisma all evening, playing roles such as a poverty-stricken New York teenager who guarantees the audience he'll be achieving basketball stardom in "The Steam Train," a man demanding his release from prison so he can take his rightful leadership role in "King Of The World," and most devastatingly, as the spirit of a soldier, killed in action, who prepares for his new transition as his body is "Flying Home."

On the funnier side, Shoshana Bean (absent from Broadway for far too long), sports an Upper East Side Jewish accent as a wealthy wife who threatens to leap from her 57th floor penthouse apartment if her husband continues to be such a cheapskate in "Just One Step," and, in the Kurt Weill/Bertolt Brecht spoof, "Surabaya-Santa," gets all torchy as a neglected Mrs. Claus who's sick of spending Christmas alone every year. A more sincere highlight is her lovely rendition of one of Brown's very best songs, "Stars and The Moon," where a woman recalls how she rejected two suitors who offered her romance and adventure in favor of one who offered financial wealth.

Colin Donnell embodies the more sensitive side of masculinity with his sweet offering of "She Cries," about accepting the emotional control a woman has over him, and "I'd Give It All For You," where he and Solea Pfeiffer play a pair of ex-lovers who both reject the comforts of their current lives to be back in the uncertainty of their relationship. ("Nothing about us was perfect or clear / But when paradise calls me, I'd rather be here.")

Pfeiffer beautifully displays the fearlessness of youth in "I'm Not Afraid of Anything," as she recalls the hesitancy of the loved ones surrounding her, and in "Christmas Lullaby," the wisdom of a woman who regards her pregnancy as a chance to nurture the future of the world.

Some songwriters are known for their lovely melodies, some for their clever words, and others for the ability to capture universal truths. In SONGS FOR A NEW WORLD, an amazingly young Jason Robert Brown revealed a mature playwright's talent for exploring unique situations and people and making them instantly relatable. This is a great work of musical theatre.

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From This Author Michael Dale

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