If you need a lift — and who doesn’t these days? — “Songs for a New World” will remind you of the resilience of the human spirit.
The show has no plot, but is a series of songs with an underlying theme. The “new world” in the title refers to our personal worlds and to pivotal moments in people’s lives. The situations in the songs range from crises in love relationships to threatened suicide, but mostly it’s about pursuing dreams and letting go of dreams.
Author-composer Jason Robert Brown has said, “It’s about a moment. It’s about hitting the wall and having to make a choice, or take a stand, or turn around and go back.”
Director Erik Stein describes the theme as “a struggle between fear and faith.” He directs a stellar cast of four actor-singers. Melvyn Abston, Karin Hendricks, Melinda Parrett and Jerry Lee have superb voices and are accompanied by an excellent four-piece onstage band playing a variety of musical styles. Band members are Jordan Richardson (also music director), Kristin Blascyk, John Flitcraft and Ross Sears.
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These descriptions of the theme sound serious, but the production is high energy and seasoned with plenty of humor.
“The New World” is interpreted literally in numbers about a sailor in a ship in 1492 and “The Flagmaker, 1775.” In other songs, it’s metaphorical. A woman who marries for money finds herself in a loveless marriage. In “She Cries,” a man agonizes, humorously, over breaking up with a woman, and in a romantic duet a couple that has broken up gets back together. Mrs. Santa Claus feels neglected, and an inner-city youth dreams of being a basketball star.
Other songs are sung by the whole company, with rousing energy. With the singers harmonizing and accompanied by the strong band, they sound like more than four voices as they sing memorable pieces such as “The River Won’t Flow” and “The Steam Train.”
Some of the songs are quite touching, and have storytelling lyrics with a Sondheim flavor that requires the singers to be actors as well as singers.
The cast does a fine job. Melvin Abston adds dancelike body language to his fine voice, and Jerry Lee can sing with a killer smile. Karen Hendricks has a soaring soprano, and Melinda Parrett displays a knack for comedy. She got the biggest laughs as Mrs. Claus.
The simple stage set is on different levels, backed with panels of light that change patterns and colors and reflect on the floor. The overhead lighting is also dramatic, often giving the performers double shadows on the floor. Dave Nofsinger is scenic designer and Tamar Geist is lighting designer.
This is an uplifting show, with sad stories, happy stories and inspiring songs. It may remind you of some of the turning points in your own life.
On any level, it’s great entertainment. The Sunday afternoon audience gave it a standing ovation, with shouts of enthusiasm, and left the theater with smiles on their faces.