PCPA Theaterfest concludes its Summer 2010 season with Jason Robert Brown’s Songs For A New World, a magical change-of-pace evening of music starring three sensational PCPA favorites (and one terrific “newcomer”) and directed with consummate imagination and flair by PCPA’s multi-talented Erik Stein.


A glorious song cycle about facing the “new world” that unexpected life changes can bring about, Songs For A New World was Tony Award-winning composer/lyricist Brown’s first big New York success, one which occurred several years before Parade, The Last Five Years, and 13 were to make him a household name among musical theater aficionados.  

The composer/lyricist 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 archetypes brought to life by PCPA’s marvelous cast is facing “that one moment,” whether it’s Melvin Abston’s sailor on a journey to find a “promised land” in “On The Deck Of A Spanish Sailing Ship, 1492” or Melinda Parrett’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 Karin Hendricks 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 Jerry Lee 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.”


Like most song cycles, Songs For A New World relies on its director and cast to find the thread that links one song to another, and communicate these connections to the audience. Stein writes about his own particular concept in his Director’s Note: “Songs takes two men and two women on a journey. They journey together; sometimes they lead, sometimes they follow.  They journey with friends, family, lovers…. They look for allies, confidants, mentors…, and in doing so they discover they are worthy – worthy to love, worthy to risk, worthy to fail, worthy of success, worthy of trust…. They let go of their agenda and find authenticity.”

From the moment Hendricks first appears at the top step of a platform leading up into the audience and sings the opening bars of “A New World,” Stein’s vision is clear, and one which scenic designer Dave Nofsinger has helped him achieve visually, this striking initial image recalling the masthead of a ship sailing off into uncharted waters. Again and again, Stein and his cast find ways to emphasize the human connections between the “characters” who sing of their hopes, dreams, fears, successes, and failures. A particularly stunning example of this is when Abston sings the show’s penultimate number, “Flying Home,” about a man on his way to meet his heavenly maker. Stein has Abston ascend to the same top step where Hendricks began the evening, but he is not alone.  Each of his castmates follows him, the arm of one connecting with the shoulder of the one ahead. Exquisite!

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

Abston, an L.A. favorite making a noteworthy PCPA debut, 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.  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.

Hendricks, an enchanting stage presence if there ever was one, lends her lovely soprano to the exquisite “Christmas Lullaby,” sung by an expectant mother to her unborn child, and joins Lee 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 Hendricks, echoing the show’s leitmotiv of people at the crossroads.

Lee, a member of the PCPA Class of 2009, makes clear the level of talent being trained in the PCPA Conservatory program, a charismatic everyman with lovely tenor pipes. In addition to “She Cries” and “I’d Give It All To You,” Lee 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, the divine Parrett steals the show every time she takes center stage, combining comedic gifts and a wow of a voice.  She’s the pissed-off wife about to jump in “Just One Step” and as a frustrated, German-accented Mrs. Santa in “Surabaya Santa” (think Marlene Dietrich with red feather boa). On a more serious note, Parrett 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.

Kudos to choreographer Michael Jenkinson (and assistant choreographer Rhett Guter), whose imaginative musical staging complements Stein’s vision immensely, and to lighting designer Tamar Geist, who lights the stage’s upstage panels in vivid, rainbow-colored hues which change according to the mood of each song. Talk about gorgeous! Musical director Jordan Richardson on piano leads a superb onstage orchestra, with Kristin Blascyk on keyboard, John Flitcraft on bass, and Ross Sears on drums.  Frederick P. Deeben’s costumes cue us in to each performer’s particular type, whether boy-(or girl)-next-door or urban tough guy or non-nonsense diva.  Walter T.J. Clissen’s sound design makes each voice and musical instrument sound crystal clear.  Aleah Van Woert is stage manager.

It’s been colder-than-usual summer nights for PCPA Solvang theatergoers, sitting bundled up under the stars, but the heat generated by this year’s musical fare has more than made up for the chill.  Following a delightful Curtains and a thrilling West Side Story, this beautiful, moving cycle of Songs For A New World completes the summer season on a gloriously high note.

Festival Theater, 420 2nd Stree, Solvang.

–Steven Stanley
August 28, 2010
                                                                         Photos: Clint Bersuch, except bottom by Luis Escobar


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