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BWW Review: SONGS FOR A NEW WORLD at Monumental Theatre Company


Monumental Theatre Company’s production of "Songs for a New World" comes at a unique time in our society, and expertly rises to our moment.

BWW Review: SONGS FOR A NEW WORLD at Monumental Theatre Company
Sarah Anne Sillers, Elvie Ellis, Kylie Clare Smith, and Ryan Burke in Songs for a New World

Songs for a New World is Jason Robert Brown's first produced show, first performed Off-Broadway in 1995. The show is a bit unusual in its structure - the music is a compilation of songs Brown wrote for other purposes, but woven together with the help of director Daisy Prince to trace common motifs. While the four actors in the production don't play the same character throughout the performance, their songs weave a common thematic tale. Brown, when interviewed about the unique production, explained, "It's about one moment. It's about hitting the wall and having to make a choice, or take a stand, or turn around and go back." The result is not quite a revue, not quite a musical.

It's also, it should be noted, an incredibly challenging score. Four actors essentially carry the entire production, which would be a feat in its own right, but Brown's songs are technically difficult as well. Songs for a New World is a favorite for university performances (in fact, the first staging I saw was my undergrad campus production) and auditions because of its minimalist staging and ability to showcase vocal talents. The songs are witty, heartfelt, and occasionally funny, but all carry a heavy emotionality that can lead to a touching performance.

Monumental Theatre Company's production of Songs for a New World, reimagined by director Megan Bunn, seeks to provide a bit more order to the abstract musical. Although some of the songs refer to specific points in history while others are more modern (and, in one case, about Santa Claus, who exists outside time), Monumental makes two major decisions to tie the piece together a bit more: all songs are moved to present day, and are told in the context of a group therapy session. These decisions center the show in a different way than most productions, but they work fairly well. While it may feel a little on the nose to have a piece about entering a new world through a group therapy session as we enter our own new, post-pandemic world, Monumental's production actually feels apt and comforting. Like the characters in Songs for a New World, we've all hit our own walls and breaking points in the last year, and it's a bit of a balm to go through their journeys with them and to be reassured in the "Hear My Song" finale that we'll be fine.

BWW Review: SONGS FOR A NEW WORLD at Monumental Theatre Company
Elvie Ellis in Songs for a New World

Another excellent decision on Monumental's part is the cast. Kylie Clare Smith (Woman 1) opens the show with her sweet soprano and a strong emotionality, and it's hard not to tear up at her rendition of "Christmas Lullaby." Elvie Ellis (Man 1) displays an incredible range from the soulful "On the Deck of a Spanish Sailing Ship, 1492" to his energetic "The Steam Train" to his heartbreaking "Flying Home." Sarah Anne Sillers (Woman 2) is delightful with her winking sarcasm and powerful voice, but also leaves the audience stunned with the heart wrenching "The Flagmaker, 1775." Ryan Burke (Man 2) rounds out the cast with his understated expressions and formidable voice - his character has more duets than the others, but he handles them masterfully, showing his ability not just to sing, but to collaborate. Indeed, each of the four cast members are clearly immensely talented, but their ability to blend their voices for the ensemble numbers is equally as impressive as their solo performances.

Supporting the cast is a solid production team. Bunn's direction is clean and clearly conveys her interpretation of the show, while music director Marika Countouris leads the incredible eight-member orchestra. David Singleton's choreography is simple and fun, and manages to add to each number without distracting from the vocals. Jeannette Christensen's costumes give audiences shorthand insights into the characters, especially as they evolve in their journeys.

My one issue with the production is really more of a burning philosophical question: how do we determine the difference between a show and a film? Pre-pandemic, this was an easy distinction, but as theaters have adapted to our times, the lines have blurred a bit and hybrids have become more common. And yet, Monumental seems to have taken it all a step further - while most productions we've seen in the last year are still performed with a stage in mind or performed as a play or reading over Zoom, Songs for a New Worldfeels more like a movie than a show. With many of the vignettes taking place in alternate spaces than the main action, with cuts between these locations and the main group therapy room - often mid-song - and most of the songs prerecorded to maintain audio smoothness over those transitions as well as cut out the background noises that would come from movements that would be unavoidable in a live staged production (though credit is certainly due to Sound Design & Audio Engineer Alec Green and Recording Engineer Draper Carter for ensuring quality audio), it's hard for me to fully argue that this is a "show." Instead, it reminded me a lot of the movie musicals I grew up watching, and that left me with that same comforting feeling of nostalgia. That said, Videographer Zack Gross (of Hand Me Down Films) certainly rises to the task of immersing the audience into this world (though, admittedly, the visual spins might be a bit enthusiastic for anyone with vertigo).

BWW Review: SONGS FOR A NEW WORLD at Monumental Theatre Company
Kylie Clare Smith in Songs for a New World

As a final note, I want to also just say how much I adored the on-camera curtain call for the orchestra as well as the cast. The music is the heart of this show, so it was fitting, and it also reminded me a bit of getting to watch the pit before and after a live show - though, in this case, the pit was in a separate room, masked, and socially distanced (under the direction of Covid Consultant Abigail Nolan). A New World, indeed.

Monumental Theatre Company's production of Songs for a New World comes at a unique time in our society, and expertly capitalizes on this. With its strong cast and creative team, this adaptation rises to our moment and taps into our emotionality. It brings us the emotional connection and comfort that many of us have missed in the last year, and helps us take our next steps with the knowledge that we'll be fine.

Songs for a New World is available to stream through July 31. Tickets are available on the Monumental Theatre Company website for 48-hour access; tickets are $25 for a single viewer, and $30 for multiple viewer access. Please note there is a content warning for suicidal ideation.

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