Before Parade, before The Last Five Years, before 13, the now-renowned composer/lyricist Jason Robert Brown made his first big splash on the New York musical theater scene with Songs For A New World, a song cycle about facing the “new world” that unexpected life changes can bring about.  This glorious collection of songs now returns to the L.A. area in a terrific revival at Long Beach’s International City Theatre, masterfully directed by Jules Aaron.

Brown was a mere twenty when he arrived in New York with a stack of songs and a dream. Five years later, in 1995, that dream became a reality when Songs For A New World opened at the WPA Theater, directed by Daisy Prince, daughter of Broadway legend Harold Prince. The final product retained many of Brown’s original songs, revised some, and added new ones, including the show’s opening number, which ties them together:

“A new world calls across the ocean. A new world calls across the sky.” More specifically, “It’s about one moment, the moment before it all becomes clear.  And in that one moment, you start to believe there’s nothing to fear. It’s about one second, and just when you’re on the verge of success, the sky starts to change and the wind starts to blow and you’re suddenly a stranger.”

Each of the “characters” brought to life by ICT’s divine multi-racial/multi-ethnic cast is facing “that one moment,” whether it’s Anthony Manough’s sailor on a journey to find a “promised land” in “On The Deck Of A Spanish Sailing Ship, 1492” or Parnia Ayari’s angry wife taunting her philandering husband by threatening to take “Just One Step” off the ledge of their fifty-seventh story penthouse apartment. Then there’s Jennifer Shelton singing about a woman who feels “the calling of adventure” and the need to escape from the fearful people around her in “I’m Not Afraid Of Anything,” and Brent Schindele in “She Cries,” as a young man longing but unable to break free from a toxic relationship.  For each of them, it’s a moment when “the surface cracks to reveal the tracks to a new world.”

Working with choreographer/assistant director Allison Bibicoff, Aaron has staged Songs For A New World inventively indeed.  Each song tells its own story, but Aaron finds ways to link them together, and to connect the cast of four regardless of who is soloing.  At times they are observing, at others reacting, at still others deliberately ignoring the person who’s singing, but they are always there, in the moment.  Aaron’s direction is visually imaginative as well, with performers continually in new configurations on Stephen Gifford’s striking multi-level stage, sometimes hanging off of the mast-like pillar on one side of the stage, other times standing atop the scaffolding on the opposite side. 

Brown’s songs provide each of the four cast members abundant moments to shine.

Manough, with a high tenor usually heard only amongst angels, gets funky in “The Steam Train” as a young man from a poor family who dreams of escaping his poverty by becoming a famous basketball player.  (The song features some great basketball choreography for the entire cast courtesy of the always splendid Bibicoff.)  In “King Of The World,” he is a young inmate longing to break free from prison walls and fulfill his destiny.  In “Flying Home,” he’s a man nearing the end of his life and ready to fly into his Father’s arms.

Shelton, one of L.A.’s musical theater treasures, lends her crystal clear soprano to the exquisite “Christmas Lullaby,” sung by an expectant mother to her unborn child, and joins Schindele in “I’d Give It All To You,” about a couple who’ve gone their separate ways only to discover that each would give it all to be back together again.  “God knows it’s easy to run, easy to run from the people you love, and harder to stand and fight for the things you believe,” sings Shelton, echoing the show’s leitmotiv of people at the crossroads.

Schindele follows his StageSceneLA Best Performance By A Lead Actor role in The Scarlet Pimpernel with yet another captivating performance in Songs For A New World. In addition to “She Cries” and “I’d Give It All To You,” Schindele shines in “The World Was Dancing,” about a man who’s run away from a dysfunctional family and from the woman who loves him. 

Finally, making a memorable professional debut (fresh out of UCLA’s Ray Bolger Musical Theatre program), the beguiling Ayari gets to sing the evening’s splashiest numbers, demonstrating great comedic skills as well as a velvet soprano. She’s the pissed-off wife in “Just One Step” and a frustrated, German-accented Mrs. Santa in “Surabaya Santa” (think Marlene Dietrich or Lotte Lenya in vamp mode). On a more serious note, she sings of a woman who chooses material possessions over “The Stars And The Moon,” and in “The Flagmaker, 1775,” of a young woman on the home front sewing “one more star” onto the colonial flag as she waits for her beloved’s return from the war.

The evening concludes with the entire cast lending their voices to the inspiring “Hear My Song,” a song which can “help you believe in tomorrow.  It’ll show you the way you can shine. It’ll help us survive all the pain.” Just as the characters they have been embodying have faced unplanned life challenges, so they are telling the audience, can we all find strength in ourselves, and in the community of friends and family who surround and support us.

Musical director extraordinaire Brent Crayon makes an illustrious ICT debut here, the perfect choice to lead the production’s three-piece orchestra, having scored an Ovation Award nomination for Songs For A New World’s West Coast Premiere at the Rubicon a few years back.  In addition to the always outstanding Gifford, ICT’s design team is completed by Jared A. Sayeg, gorgeously lighting Gifford’s set, Kim DeShazo, costuming the cast in vibrant autumn tones, Paul Fabre, whose sound design blends the cast’s voices and Crayon’s musicians to perfection.

With Parade running concurrently at the Mark Taper Forum, ICT’s Songs For A New World makes October a banner month for Jason Robert Brown fans.  Had there been no Songs For A New World, Brown might never have been asked to write his Tony-winning score for Parade. Brown lovers, and musical theater aficionados of any persuasion, can rejoice at Songs For A New World’s return, particularly in a production as memorable as this one.

International City Theatre, Long Beach Performing Arts Center, 300 E. Ocean Blvd., Long Beach.

–Steven Stanley
October 17, 2009
                                                                                                     Photos: Shashin Desai

Comments are closed.