The works of New York native Jason Robert Brown certainly find favour with many musical theatre fans. In recent years, his score for the stage version of The Bridges of Madison County won a Tony Award for Best Original Score, and one of his most popular works, the early noughties off-Broadway musical The Last Five Years, has spawned many productions around the world, as well as a 2014 film starring Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan.
Songs for a new world takes us back to where it all began for Brown. It was the first show of his to be produced, which occurred off-Broadway in 1995. Rather than a full stage musical, it’s a song cycle. Thematically, Brown has described the piece as being the story of ‘one moment – hitting the wall and having to make a choice, of taking a stand, or turning around and going back’. It’s all about grappling with the task of making decisions and appreciating the consequences that may (or even, certainly will) follow.
‘New world’ is, of course, used in the sense in which that term was coined by Italian explorer, Amerigo Vespucci, in the early 16th century to refer to the Americas – territories that, until that time, were unchartered and the discovery of which brought with them substantial new opportunities and possibilities. It’s apt, therefore, that Jacob Battista’s set is a ship strongly reminiscent of a vessel that could have been captained by Vespucci and would have embarked on journeys at that time in search of new territories. While it’s literally tied to the first two numbers of the evening, conceptually, there’s a patent link between it and each number performed during the course of the show that makes the ship a good aesthetic choice by Battista and director Luke Joslin.
Performing Songs for a new world here is a cast of four: Sophie Carter, Cameron MacDonald, Christopher Scalzo and Teagan Wouters. Each is tasked with telling several song-length stories across the night that all tell a tale of an individual at a pivotal point in their life, perhaps on the verge of pursuing a life-altering path or lamenting the ramifications of a crucial decision that’s already been made.
The stories told are varied and examine individuals from many walks of life (over time), and Brown’s score is highly enjoyable from the outset. The question is, how much of what is seen in Songs for a new world really resonates with Australian theatregoers in 2016? In order for this to succeed as a powerful and affecting theatrical work, it’s essential we, as the audience, find ourselves invested in the plight of a character. And this is where Songs for a new world seems to fall short – it’s questionable whether a number of the individual tales really speak to Australian audiences in 2016.
The big plus is that Blue Saint Productions has succeeded in its mission to spotlight Australian talent. The group of four charged with carrying Songs for a new world each have the opportunity to demonstrate considerable talent and versatility, and those performers are accompanied on each number by a small but tight band of three players, with Lucy Bermingham ensuring consistently strong musical direction.
From his initial notes in ‘On the deck of a Spanish sailing ship, 1492’, Scalzo is impressive. There’s such authenticity in his vocal deliveries as he steps into the shoes of each of his characters. He appears so completely connected to the text, and his performance is perhaps the most memorable for that reason. As an imprisoned man who believes his incarceration is wrongful, his protestations to his captors are particularly passionate.
Carter’s performance is powerful and gutsy, with her roles affording her the opportunity to present both light and shade. She gives it everything she has in ‘Just one step’, a song in which a wealthy woman stands on the window ledge of her New York City apartment crying out for the attention of her husband. It’s entertaining and climaxes with Carter nailing an impossibly long note, which she makes look as though it’s nothing at all. She also has arguably the standout comedic moment of the evening, performing ‘Surabaya-Santa’, the story of Santa Claus’ neglected wife. It’s a stark contrast to the performance of ‘The Flagmaker, 1775’ we see not long after, in which Carter is a woman sewing a flag, struggling to remain hopeful that her husband and son, both fighting in a war, will eventually return home.
MacDonald also succeeds in his characterisations, especially impressing in ‘She Cries’, a highly sincere-feeling rendition of a song in which a man describes his intense love for a woman (interestingly, the track feels like a relation of ‘Moving too fast’ in The Last Five Years.) And Wouters’ wonderful vocals are appropriately laden with self-assurance in ‘I’m not afraid of anything’ and then, later, much more fragility (and rightly so) for ‘Christmas Lullaby’.
The finale piece, ‘Hear my song’, sees the cast come together for a ‘this is what I’ve learned’-themed number, a suitably optimistic piece reinforcing the notion that life goes on and we cope, regardless of many of the choices we make.
There’s no doubting the calibre of any of the performers in Blue Saint’s Songs for a new world. Each is highly able handling Brown’s wordy and often challenging musical pieces. And as a foursome, the group harmonises well, a fact particularly worthy of recognition given the very limited period in which they’ve had to rehearse this piece. Audiences likely will walk away from this experience feeling satiated by having been treated to an evening of wonderful music delivered by some of the country’s top tier musical theatre talent. But does Songs for a new world contain the songs for today? Arguably, there’s some room for reinvention of this popular song cycle to ensure its central themes will effectively evoke recognition from those seeing it for the first time.
SONGS FOR A NEW WORLD – SEASON DETAILS
Dates: Playing now until 28 August
Times: Tuesday to Saturday at 8pm, Saturday at 2pm, Sunday at 1pm and 6pm
Tickets*: Adult $59, Concession $54, Group $49 (for 8+)
Bookings: www.hayestheatre.com.au or (02) 8065 7337
*not including booking fees
Running time 1 Hour 40 Minutes (inc. interval)