Helen R. Murray begins her tenure as executive producer at the Aurora Fox with an inspiring production of Songs for a New World. This is a small musical — a four-person song cycle — that carries a large emotional charge. The show's theme unites those moments in life when we come to some kind of turning point: “Hitting a wall and having to make a choice,” according to composer Jason Robert Brown. I’m guessing the title also refers to the tragedies, comic moments and huge possibilities of America itself.
Of course, these are concepts so broad they can encompass just about anything, and Songs for a New World comprises fresh material, cabaret numbers and songs composed by Brown for other shows. Each song tells a distinct story and is complete in itself. Some of the meanings are entirely clear, others elliptical. But the entire piece is framed and united by repeating lyrics and melodies — and also, in this production, by four extraordinary performances. Leonard Barrett, Randy Chalmers, Sarah Rex and Leiney Rigg are all very different, but they interact beautifully, and their voices meld together in gorgeous harmony.
The first act is intriguing, sometimes moving, sometimes funny. “Just One Step” is usually sung by a woman but here by a man, Chalmers. He stands on a ledge, threatening suicide because he’s not getting enough attention from his wealthy partner. Chalmers evokes this manipulative petulant little beast perfectly. Another song that’s had a sex change is “She Cries.” Here — as I’ve always seen it before — a cynical, world-weary man complains he can’t leave his lover because every time he tries, she weeps, but I couldn’t get a handle on the relationship with gentle-seeming Rigg singing. Another woman, played by Rex, is offered the “Stars and the Moon” by her lovers, but opts for wealth and comes to regret it.
A couple of first-act songs go deep. There’s “On the Deck of a Spanish Sailing Ship, 1492,” in which the captain prays for help for his exhausted, starving passengers. These passengers are Spanish Jews forcibly expelled from their country, but it’s hard not to think of the terrible voyages of slaves to the new world, and also of the desperate plight of immigrants today.
Part one is excellent, but parts of act two go well beyond excellence. There’s funny stuff here, too: In “Surabaya-Santa” (a take-off on Brecht-Weill’s “Surabaya Johnny”), Mrs. Claus, sung by Rex, reveals that her husband is more interested in small boys and reindeer than in her. As she rages, huge snowflakes float down outside the coruscating glass windows of the set. In a touching and contrasting piece beautifully acted and sung by Barrett and Rex, two people who had been alienated return to each other, older now and wiser. “The Flagmaker, 1775” feels like an important addition, bringing the grief and loss of war into this collection of turning points, but I have to admit that it’s my least favorite of the songs, one of those melodramatic hammer-blow numbers that expresses emotion through ever-increasing volume.
I don’t know what changes Murray and musical director David Nehls made to the music — the program mentions Nehls’s “new orchestrations” — but at this point, things start to soar. Though I’ve seen Songs for a New World before and liked it, I’ve never known it to flow as beautifully as it does here, with moments of pure transcendence. Rigg’s eloquent stillness and lovely soprano as she sings “Christmas Lullaby,” addressed to the child in her womb: “I will be like Mother Mary/ With a blessing in my soul/ And the future of the world inside of me.” A soldier, perhaps the Flagmaker’s son, sings “Flying Home," and there’s a double meaning, movingly expressed in Chalmers’s rich tenor: The soldier’s body is being returned to his mother; his soul is flying toward his God.
Barrett’s expressive baritone entered the mix on “Hear My Song,” Rex joined in, full-hearted, and by the time the entire company was singing together, I had my eyes closed in a haze of pure pleasure: Don’t let this stop, I kept thinking. Don’t let this ever stop.
Songs for a New World, presented by the Aurora Fox Arts Center through October 14. 9900 East Colfax Avenue, Aurora, 303-739-1970, aurorafox.org.
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