Review: Songs for a New World Creates a Noteworthy Evening at Miners Alley
Kristen Samu and Jacquie Jo Billings in Songs for a New World.
Songs for a New World Miners Alley Playhouse Musical theater takes many forms, and a small, heartfelt evening can be every bit as satisfying as a glittery Broadway effusion. Composer Jason Robert Brown's intriguing The Last Five Years, produced in Denver in 2005 by Modern Muse and at the Garner Galleria in 2008, is an intimate, two-person musical that tells the story of a failed marriage by working backwards through time, so that the woman is seen reading her husband's breakup letter as the show opens, and no sooner has she finished her grief-stricken song than he erupts onto the stage singing joyously about the "shiksa goddess" -- her -- that he's just met. Songs for a New World, an earlier piece first presented when Brown was just 25, has some of the same tone, the same wistfulness and bittersweet worldview, a similar intimacy.
But Songs for a New World -- a synthesis of new work, cabaret numbers and songs Brown had written for other musicals -- has no plot and no dialogue. It's all sung, with each song telling its own discrete story, and all of them are linked by a concept so large and loose it could encompass almost anything: the idea of a turning point in an individual life, a moment of becoming, of either joyous or fearful realization. See also: BDT's Fiddler on the Roof Is Reason to Celebrate -- L'Chaim!
According to Brown, "It's about hitting the wall and having to make a choice, or take a stand, or turn around and go back." The performers -- two men and two women -- don't play the same characters throughout, but their stories do have a kind of unity. The opening number, "The New World," explores most of the themes -- narrative and musical -- we'll encounter later, and certain ideas recur again and again. If we see a young couple breaking up early on, we'll remember them later when another couple comes to the realization that they belong together.
Some of the songs are comical and lighthearted, others intensely serious, and the musical explores historical turning points as well as personal ones. In "On the Deck of a Spanish Sailing Ship, 1492," desperate passengers pray for help; they may be traveling with Columbus or they may be Spanish Jews forcibly expelled from their country. "The Flagmaker" -- the show's only unfortunately melodramatic number -- is sung by the mother of a revolutionary soldier. This is followed by "Flying Home," in which a dying soldier, perhaps the woman's son, perhaps a universal figure, seems to be pleading with both his mother and his god: "I'll hear you call me/Just like before/And I'll be flying home/Straight into your arms."
Director Brenda Billings has assembled four singers who are appealing to watch and entirely capable of handling the difficult score. Jacquie Jo Billings, Kristen Samu, Matt Kok and Rory Pierce all have their own moments of revelation. Light-footed and charming, Kok portrays -- among other roles -- the dying soldier and a kid from a chaotic home who's determined to become a basketball star in "The Steam Train." It's good to see Pierce, whose work in the crazed comedies at the now-defunct Heritage Square Music Hall we enjoyed for years, bringing gravitas and a pleasing baritone to "The River Won't Flow," a lament about hard luck and lost opportunities, and also communicating the humorous, tooth-gritted acquiescence of a man dealing with a manipulative woman whom he cannot leave because whenever he makes the attempt, "She Cries."
If you've ever wanted to see Mrs. Claus as the world-weary German seductress Lotte Lenya, you have to experience Samu's "Surabaya Santa." Here we learn that Mr. Ho-Ho-Ho has eyes for his reindeer rather than her and spends his time at home watching Miracle on 34th Street. Samu has great comic timing; she's also brilliantly funny in "Just One Step," as a spoiled woman poised precariously on a ledge, determined to get her husband's attention. A little later, she shines in a far more soulful exploration of the plight of someone who married for money, the lyrically comic "Stars and the Moon." The most glorious voice of the evening belongs to Jacquie Jo Billings, who's always enthralling, whether she's asserting defiantly "I'm Not Afraid of Anything" or playing an expectant mother and singing a gentle "Christmas Lullaby."
Get the Arts & Culture Newsletter
Find out about upcoming performances, exhibitions, openings and special events happening in the Denver art and theater scene.