Inland Valley Repertory Theatre celebrates the end of summer with Jason Robert Brown’s Songs For A New World, the song cycle that put the future Tony winner’s name on the map, and if not the inspired vision of Brown’s 1995 debut that I’ve seen previously, a number of fine performances (and one in particular) make this a mostly effective, ultimately affecting revival of the very first JRB hit.
The now-renowned composer/lyricist (Parade, The Last Five Years, 13, The Bridges Of Madison County) made his first big splash on the New York musical theater scene way back in the mid ‘90s with sixteen songs centering on a single theme, that of facing the “new world” that unexpected life changes can bring about.
Brown had been a mere twenty when he arrived in NYC with a stack of songs and a dream. Five years later that dream became a reality when Songs For A New World opened at the WPA Theater under the direction of 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 Songs For A New World’s “characters” is facing that one moment, whether it’s Man 1 Richard Bermudez’s sailor on a journey to find a “promised land” in “On The Deck Of A Spanish Sailing Ship, 1492” or Woman 2 Lisa Donahey’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 Woman 1 Amanda Minano 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 Man 2 Patrick McMahon 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.”
Previous productions have found particularly inventive ways of linking Brown’s sixteen Songs For A New World and connecting the cast of four.
This time round, director Hope Kaufman mostly lets JRB’s songs work their individual magic, aided by Kim Eberhardt’s snappy, jazzy choreography and musical director Ronda Rubio’s sensational live accompaniment on keyboard with Brad Vaughn adding oomph on drums and percussion.
Is there is a Southern California musical theater leading man with a headier combination of matinee idol looks, Men’s Fitness cover model physique, gorgeous tenor, and first-rate acting chops than Bermudez? Whether getting funky in “The Steam Train” as a young Latino who dreams of escaping el barrio by becoming a famous basketball player, or embodying a young inmate longing to break free from prison walls and fulfill his destiny in “King Of The World,” or as a man nearing the end of his life and ready to fly into his Father’s arms in “Flying Home,” Bermudez makes Man 1’s every song a stunner.
The delightful Donahey gets to perform Songs For A New World’s splashiest numbers, demonstrating terrific comedic skills and a soprano as smooth as silk. 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.
Incandescent UCI senior Minano sings the exquisite “Christmas Lullaby,” to Woman 1’s unborn child, and joins McMahon 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,” Minano sings in her lovely soprano, echoing the show’s leitmotiv of people at the crossroads.
McMahon has a strong stage presence but is less successful vocally than his castmates in “She Cries,” “I’d Give It All To You,” and “The World Was Dancing,” about a man who’s run away from a dysfunctional family and from the woman who loves him.
The evening concludes with the entire cast lending their voices in glorious harmony 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.”
Costume designer Jamie Brown has come up with some fine New World Wear, with special snaps for keeping Mrs. Santa’s sexiest elf provocatively underdressed. Daniel Morefield lights Mark MacKenzie’s set modification quite strikingly. Andrew Piña’s sound design insures a clear mix of vocals and band. (Another design team takes over for Songs For A New World’s upcoming Fontana transfer to Tibbies Center Stage.)
Leading the IVRT staff are producing artistic director Frank Minano, executive director Donna Marie Minano, artistic director Terre Gunkel, and associate artistic directors Kaufman and Bobby Collins. Collins is production director.
Having just won his second and third Tony awards for The Bridges Of Madison County, and with Honeymoon In Vegas scheduled to begin Broadway previews in just a few months, Jason Robert Brown is hotter than ever nearly twenty years after Songs For A New World first saw the light of day.
IVRT’s latest reminds us of how it all started.
Candlelight Pavilion, 455 West Foothill Boulevard, Claremont.
August 26, 2014
Photos: DawnEllen Ferry