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Blue Saint Productions, fast becoming one of the most exciting producers of independent Australian theatre, have opened a sensational new production of Songs For a New World.Setting the production apart from others incarnations of this song-cycle are four incredibly strong performers and a clever set design that takes the show out of a typical blank-slate environment and grounds it firmly on a weathered ship.I first saw Songs for a New World some 10 years ago, at which point, the Original Cast Recording became somewhat of an obsession for a time. The music of Songs For a New World is exquisitely written by the legendary Jason Robert Brown, and its songs delve through a range of emotionally worn or change-seeking characters in different facets of the struggles presented through life. These songs are timeless, carrying as much meaning today as they did when they were written.

Upon walking into the theatre I thought, “What an odd setting, does this show really belong on a ship?” In my mind, the second song, ‘On the Deck of a Spanish Sailing Ship, 1492′ was the only song that seemed to really belong in this space. But if there’s one thing we know about the magic of theatre, it’s best to keep an open mind.

Linden Furnell PHOTO CREDIT BEN FON

And so the journey began, the company took their places and ‘A New World’ started to play. Not only this song, in fact the whole show, is littered with metaphors. Jacob Battista’s setting took these metaphors to a more literal place, which became a pleasant surprise. Suddenly, lyrics such as “A new world calls across the ocean” or “You’re suddenly a stranger in some completely different land” find a completely new, more tangible meaning. Later too, numbers such as ‘Just One Step’ or ‘World Was Dancing’ see the set’s levels used cleverly to depict different locations, while the physical structure of the ship melts away into the background; mostly due to the power of the four particularly skilled storytellers.

John O'Hara, Linden Furnell PHOTO CREDIT BEN FON

The four actors reel you in with incredible vocals and an authentic ability to tell each story. They are real. We aren’t watching characters in a show. They capture our senses with their understated genuity. Director Luke Joslin has led this cast through a realistic portrayal of humanity, using the space effectively and keeping the audience sizzling for more.

John O’Hara is Man 1. He tackles songs such as ‘On the deck of a Spanish Sailing Ship’ and ‘King of the World’ with his strong, soaring tenor voice. He knows how to use it to achieve its best sound, and has great control over every projected note. His characterisations were generally wrought with a sense of guilt, loss or oppression and yet he has considerately and passionately differentiated each character. Perhaps he pulled back vocally in ‘Flying Home’, but his physically ghost-like placement in this number again placed him in a fresh light.

John O'Hara PHOTO CREDIT BEN FON.jpg

Woman 1 is played by Teagan Wouters, a young girl with an obvious bright future ahead. Wouters is raw and doesn’t hold back; most impressive is the clarity in her voice. From the very first sung lines of the show, her voice sends shivers down your spine. The clarity and control she has over her instrument is sublime. Occasionally she lets emotion takes over in numbers such as ‘I’m not afraid’ and ‘Christmas Lullaby’, but it only adds to the depth of her portrayal.

Teagan Wouters, Linden Furnell PHOTO CREDIT BEN FON

Linden Furnell is arresting as Man 2. With mostly international credits under his belt, it was a treat to see this relative newcomer shine. Interestingly, a lot of his phrasing began behind the beat. His soft baritone register has rich deeper tones, and yet his higher notes are sung effortlessly. Furnell seems like the guy next door. He is charming, soulful and comes across as completely down to earth, especially in ‘She Cries’ which has potential to be overdone, and the nonchalant ‘World Was Dancing’.

Perhaps in the show’s most difficult role, Natalie O’Donnell is tasked with a more extreme variety of characters, from the suicidal unhappy wife in ‘Just One Step’ to the drunken Mrs Clause in ‘Surabaya Santa’. Her Boston accent is impeccable. O’Donnell shows contrast in the emotionally charged ‘Flagmaker 1775’, and then wisdom and regret in ‘Stars and the Moon’. Her voice is warm and rich; she performs with a certain maturity.

Natalie O'Donnell PHOTO CREDIT BEN FON

The four shine individually, but are a knockout when they sing together. Robert Brown’s score is complicated, and features some ridiculously intricate harmonies. This cast find a perfect balance that near-outshines the original cast recording. Another highlight was to see the inclusion of ‘Steam Train’, which is so often cut from this show due to the complex nature of its characterisation and vocal demands. Minimal choreography by Sam Hooper has also been incorporated to give extra polish.

Natalie O'Donnell, John O'Hara, Linden Furnell, Teagan Wouters PHOTO CREDIT BEN FON

Geoffrey Castles’ music direction is tight and precise. Not only evident with the four performers, but also with the band which he makes up on keyboard with Anthony Chircop on bass and Tom Doublier on drums. System Sound do a fine job of amplifying the whole show without a technical glitch in earshot.

Battista’s previously mentioned set is worn for effect and has scrawlings which tie into key moments of the show. The other most effective element of the show is Peter Amesbury’s lighting design which adds to the mood of each piece, and works to highlight the focus.

Songs for a New World runs until the end of this week. I strongly urge you book your tickets now!
www.chapeloffchapel.com.au

Photo Credit: Ben Fon

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