The older that I get, the more I turn back to things I loved when I was young. Give me back the Hawaiian Punch, afternoon naps and Disney movies any day. And we’re talking about the good old Disney days, before there were singing gargoyles and hidden messages regarding the Manifest Destiny — when there were just singing marine animals and hidden messages of patriarchal dominance. It is this youthful exuberance that you can find in “Songs for a New World,” a musical by Jason Robert Brown. The show is whimsically somewhere between an episode of “Schoolhouse Rock for College Kids” and the feel good movies of your golden kid years.
The premise of the musical is that we all live in this new world, though each of our roles here is different. Each song tells a different story; stories range from a crazed ex-Mrs. Claus’s diatribe to an account of Betsy Ross’s flag-making endeavors. Each song reveals a different perspective of humanity, weaving the threads of pain, joy and ultimately the hope that binds us all together into one community.
The show benefits greatly from a talented cast of singers, who, although having no specific characters, bring a lot of life to their roles. Director Andy Sandberg, who also stars in the show, has created a comforting atmosphere that lends the songs an added familiarity.
In “Just One Step,” Victoria Neiman ’06 hilariously nails a rendition of a New York wife teetering — literally — on the edge of suicide. As she berates her wayward husband, one is struck both with her amazingly convincing accent and the acuity with which she portrays both longing and regret. When she falters on the ledge of the building, nearly taking that “one step” that would seal her doom, the audience isn’t sure whether to cheer her or lament the pain that she feels. Neiman also stands out in “Stars and the Moon,” where she manages to be sweetly ironic when recounting her tale of true love abandoned for love of material possessions and in “Surabaya — Santa,” as the drunken spouse of Santa Claus bemoaning her lonely Christmas existence. Shimmying around the stage in true cocktail form as Mrs. Claus, Neiman relates Saint Nick’s neglectful behavior and unhealthy attraction to Blitzen. Neiman grows throughout the piece, switching easily from character actress to ingZ
In both “The Steam Train” and “King of the World,” Glenton Davis ’07 gives passionate performances. Though at times fond of excessive vocal acrobatics, Davis nonetheless has an impressive instrument that delivers an incredible range. In “The Steam Train,” he shows off as a tough up-and-coming basketball player determined to escape the fates of prison and death to overcome the abandonment of his father. Swinging around the basketball doesn’t seem to deter Davis, who gives an entertaining Motown inspired kick to the lyrics. In “King of the World,” he becomes the prisoner, taken from the free world and longing for his lost dreams. Davis excels at portraying the brooding passion bubbling beneath the tough exterior, both vocally and physically.
Andy Sandberg ’05 and Miranda Jones ’06 both deliver solo performances that are nuanced and powerful; together they scintillate. The sweetness of their harmony combined with the power of the lyrics in “I’d Give It All for You” makes for one of the best numbers of the show. Jones is particularly expressive, managing to convey the hesitancy and the certainty of love with a demanding vocal score to boot. Sandberg is quite soulful as well, and the chemistry between the two helps illuminate the story behind the songs.
For a show with no particular story that is told in no particular order, “Songs for a New World” has plenty of heart. And you’ll be happily humming the songs for days afterwards.
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