Songs for a New World. Often the ‘Other’ Jason Robert Brown musical (after the more famous ‘The Last Five Years’) has long been a favourite of mine (for those interested it’s a hotly contested number one JRB slot with Parade)
A difficult show to stage, being a revue show more than an actual musical, it’s songs have become staples of musical theatre cabarets and auditions in the last 20 years. So most of us musical nerds know it well. Hell we’ve even picked out ‘our’ songs. (Again for those interested, ‘I’m Not Afraid of Anything’)
It’s always tricky seeing something you’ve imagined for years realised on stage and there are always going to be moments that rub against the idea you’ve created. For me it was more musical phrasing choices, having become so entwined with the recording and various other incarnations of the piece. Sometimes when you’ve spent so long entwined in the music in a certain way, even the best performances live can take you out of the moment of what you’ve felt it should be. But that is also sometimes a good thing. By the end I was won over by the style of the performers and orchestrations, and seeing things in the music I’d never before noticed.
The performances also brought to life and brought out things that I never realised were there, the mark of really great performers and initiative directing, particularly in a piece like this where the context means there’s far less to work with than a traditional musical.
As much as I love the musical, it was also Jenna Russell that was a primary motivator for seeing the show. Having adored her performance as Dot in ‘Sunday in the Park with George’ several years ago, I’ve been such an admirer of her work. As ever, for me at least she didn’t put a foot or note wrong. The humour she brought to songs like ‘Just One Step’ and ‘Surabaya Santa’ was brilliantly pitched and matched with equal emotion in another of my favourites ‘Stars and Moon’. Alongside Russell the other female part was the formidable Cynthia Erivo-and make no mistake I say formidable as the biggest compliment. Many have described better how talented she is, but what always strikes me is the emotion Erivo puts into her songs, as well as the power behind her voice.
For the men Damian Humbley demonstrates once again that he’s an actor who just ‘clicks’ with Jason Robert Brown’s music.(he previously played Jamie in The Last Five Years) In this, as with everyone else switching characterization with each song, he also gets to show off his impressive vocals. And it must be said, looking dashing in his suit (I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for him) Against three musical theatre veterans Dean John-Wilson (who has done his share as well) was in danger of getting a bit lost. But his strong vocals, and it must be said beautiful voice, means he’s able to hold his own.
Songs For a New World has some fantastic pieces in it and this cast do it more than justice, they reshape it into something not new but something you wouldn’t perhaps imagine of it. Breathing new life into a piece I thought I knew inside out and backwards, I think is the best compliment I can give it.
Songs for a New World is at the St James’ theatre London until 9th August.