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BWW Review: SONGS FOR A NEW WORLD at Village Theatre

A powerful production with some welcome twists.

BWW Review: SONGS FOR A NEW WORLD at Village Theatre
Tyler Dobies, Alexandria J. Henderson,
Maria Habeeb, and Cal Mitchell in
Village Theatre's Songs For A New World.
Photo credit: Gabriel Corey

If you're familiar with Jason Robert Brown's song cycle, "Songs for a New World" then you know it needs a few crucial elements to be a success. You need killer voices, as there's only four of them, but more importantly you need clear voices as the show is all sung through, and the stories are within the lyrics. Without that it could just be a muddled mess. Luckily the folks at Village were quite aware of this and cast four powerhouses who could carry the load. There were a few minor issues that we'll get to but for the most part, four soaring voices. But beyond the talent, director Devanand Janki managed to tell these tales in such a way as to put a very relevant spin on them, making the evening all the more evocative.

For those not so familiar with it, there really isn't much of a story, at least not one story. Brown compiled a collection of his works dealing with journeys, change, and new beginnings. Performed by only four people (Maria Habeeb, Alexandria J. Henderson, Cal Mitchell, and Tyler Dobies) as they work through these songs of hope and second chances. With some familiar numbers to theater geeks such as the oft covered "Stars and the Moon", each song is a story unto itself creating an evening of vignettes.

But Janki has taken an evening that can be a bit disjointed and tied it together nicely with a ribbon of current social commentary. They were only a few small changes to achieve this, but effective ones. Taking one section of "On the Deck of a Spanish Sailing Ship" and translating one repeated line into the languages of notable immigrants over the years. Staging "King of the World" in a modern-day prison as sung by an incarcerated black man. And most powerfully, taking "The Flagmaker" which is typically looking at war through the eyes of flag maker Betsy Ross as she waits for her family to come home, and turning it into a black mother wondering if her son will come home on any given evening and as she sings, projecting the images of the mothers of people of color who have been killed by the police. And as much as I loved these changes, there was one I wasn't as thrilled with and that was the cutting of one of my favorite numbers, "Surabaya Santa" from the show. And while I lament the loss of the number, mostly as I wanted to hear one of these incredible women (or one of the equally incredible men) sing it, I understand it's omission as it would not have fit with the show he was trying to create. Still, just make it an encore or something. OK, sorry, just being a bit selfish there.

BWW Review: SONGS FOR A NEW WORLD at Village Theatre
Alexandria J. Henderson in
Village Theatre's Songs For A New World.
Photo credit: Gabriel Corey

But speaking of the incredible performers, the four of them, each with such immense and crystal-clear voices, could have relaxed a bit into the roles more as sometimes things felt a bit too forced, too precise. It's a minor qualm and one that I hope might settle down as the run goes on in an otherwise fantastic show. Henderson blew everyone away with the aforementioned "Flagmaker" number pouring tons of heartache into the piece. But then, if you've seen her before, you know how amazing she is. Mitchell left it all on the court with "Steam Train", an ode to a rising basketball star. And Habeeb and Dobies, with their insanely rich vocals managed to bring new life and new respect to a few of my formally least favorite songs. Dobies, who has a voice that I want to hear sing anything and a lot, took on "The World was Dancing" and managed to turn it into a very touching story of missed opportunities. And Habeeb, with a voice you can not only hear in the back row but in your soul, made "Christmas Lullaby" soar into the heavens and beyond.

This is Village's first venture back to their live stages since you know what hit, and they managed it with tons of power and pathos. And so, with my three-letter rating system, I give Village Theatre's production of "Songs for a New World" a resonant YAY. If you know the show or if you are just now hearing of it, this is a hell of a production to catch and develop a whole new love for it.

"Songs for a New World" performs at Village Theatre in Issaquah through February 13th before moving to their Everett location running February 18th through March 13th. For tickets or information visit them online at www.villagetheatre.org.



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From This Author - Jay Irwin