Songs For A New World is a wonderful song cycle. Written by renowned composer Jason Robert Brown in 1995, it focuses on the capturing of a single moment that can change the course of a life. The songs are not, as a whole, linked together but combine to create a powerful piece of theatre. It is the first production by the aptly named New World Theatre and it is an incredibly strong outing.
Director and company co-founder Melanie Evans takes a small but mighty ensemble cast and uses them to brilliant effect. The four actors move smoothly from scene to scene, often feeling as though they move together with one breath in a dance. Evans makes brilliant use of the simple modular staging to create spaces at a variety of levels that encapsulates the mood and feeling of each scene in the show, moving and changing perfectly to the music.
Musical direction of the show was in the capable hands of co-founder Andrew Wadley and it is impeccable. Wadley leads the small, refined band and singers through the dazzling style of score that is a Jason Robert Brown musical. The trick to performing a “JRB” piece is to make the complex timing and ever shifting underscore and incredibly emotional subject matter seem as if it is as easy as breathing and Wadley leads his players to achieve this spectacularly and of particular note is his attention to detail in the balance of the harmonies which were spectacular.
Rather than being given names, the four ensemble members are simple given numbers as they explore the landscape of the song cycle. As Woman 1, Lara Boyle dazzles with sincerity, openness and beautifully realised characterisation. Her vocals are crystalline and pure and she finds a way to embody the journey of each song, and it is the honesty of each of these incarnations that is so incredibly striking particularly in her portrayal of ‘I’m Not Afraid of Anything’.
Man 1 is played by Simon Chamberlain and offers a variety of delightful moments. His beautiful vocals soar over the orchestration and his upper register is something incredible to listen to. Chamberlain’s raw and earthy portrayal of ‘King of the World’ is majestic and desperate and perfection, while his work with a packet of corn chips in ‘She Cries’ was scene stealing and a wonderful lift to the often emotional tone of the show.
Liam J O’Byrne plays Man 2 and offers up a strength of stage presence that carries him through the show effortlessly. Possessing a beautiful voice that floats through the close harmony work, O’Byrne gives impassioned beauty to his rendition of ‘The World Was Dancing’ that had many in the audience on the edge of their seats as he unfolded the heartbreaking story.
Rounding out the small ensemble is Natalie Ridoutt as Woman 2. Ridoutt gave a command performance and offered up many of the highlights of the show, including her heartbreaking performance of ‘The Flagmaker, 1775’ that brought tears to the eyes with raw honesty and beautiful vocals. She found an incredible beauty in the stillness of that moment, and as an audience we were with her as she desperately sewed one more star and one more stripe. She effortlessly changed gears between this and the much more comedic songs of the show, another highlight found in Surabaya-Santa.
The cast were wonderfully supported by a team of technical creatives who, considering the limitations of the small space, made excellent use of lighting and blackout to break and maintain the flow of the show. Linking some passages of the show into wonderful vignettes and a masterclass of storytelling, and highlighted the more isolated “moments” of the show beautifully. Equally effective are the sound design elements of the show, largely maintaining a lovely balance between the ensemble and the orchestra, again considering the limitations in the space.
Songs For A New World holds a remarkable place in the musical theatre canon. It explores themes that are equally measured doses of heartbreak and heartwarming and as their inaugural production – New World Theatre has set a very high bench mark for the Brisbane community theatre scene.