Songs for a New World, the first full-on production by Jason Robert Brown (originally produced in 1995) is a different kind of musical, a showcase for Brown’s considerable gifts as songwriter and lyricist. But not the same kind of revue you might expect from Kander and Ebb or Webber or Sondheim, where songs are cherry-picked to show range and depth, but perhaps avoid the extremities that often accompany genius. Director Coy Covington describes Songs for a New World as a “theatrical song cycle” which fits, the pieces follow a thematic thread (variations on a theme?) but there’s no narrative as such. The title might lead us to expect a sort of Utopian vision, but that’s not necessarily the case. Songs such as “Surabaya, Santa” and “King of the World” put a different spin on traditional ideas, but might have a more cynical undercurrent. Images projected on a large screen behind the eight performers, complicate and expand on lyrics we might otherwise take merely at face value.
Brown’s music seems to evince a lush, bravura, extravagance of emotion without always referencing a particular context. At least in this show. I couldn’t help but experience a longing for songs that were more…..denotative? Grounded? There were times when Songs seemed to verge on the nebulous. And yet, at the core of any song are the ideals and feelings behind the setting. You don’t need to understand the life of Christopher Isherwood in Berlin to appreciate Cabaret’s “Don’t Tell Mama, ” or Puritanism to grasp Spring Awakening’s “The Bitch of Living.” I was impressed, too, by Brown’s willingness to embrace spiritual issues, outside secular perception. Religious fanaticism has, understandably, steered many clear of that conversation. But Brown has captured the essence of divine radiance on a personal level, without getting tangled in diatribe or indoctrination.
There’s sublime pleasure in experiencing the versatility and panache of this highly skilled, confident cast: Feleceia Benton, Jonathan Bragg, John Campione, Peter DiCesare, Danielle Estes, Walter Lee, Laura Lites and Sara Shelby-Martin. Under the meticulous,
inspired guidance of Covington, they have risen to this demanding score and challenging lyrics with tenderness, intelligence and ardor.
Uptown Players proudly presents Songs for a New World, playing June 21st through July 7th, 2013. The Kalita Humphreys Theater. 3636 Turtle Creek Boulevard, Dallas, Texas 75219. 214-219-2718. www.uptownplayers.org