There are two ways to present a song cycle like Jason Robert Brown’s SONGS FOR A NEW WORLD: in concert or as a theater piece. Luckily for The Longwood Players, director Jason Luciana signed up Katie Pickett and Renée Saindon. The two women teach a master class on how it should be done.
Pickett and Saindon turn their songs into magnificent mini-dramas. Saindon whips through a gamut of changing emotions in her triumphant “I’m Not Afriad of Anything”---Then she breaks our hearts with the ironic lament about the love she foolishly discarded in “Stars and the Moon.” It only takes two minutes to reduce us to rubble. That’s the beauty of Brown’s songs in the right hands.
Pickett brings down the house with her hilarious barrage of spousal complaints (against Santa Claus, no less!)---Then she makes “The Flagmaker, 1775” into a mother’s plaintive prayer for any son at war, then or now. Again, our hearts are in our throats, choking back the tears.
The rest of the program is a mixed bag, and I mean “mixed” artistically, not ethnically. In fact, in Brown’s juggernaut, “The Steam Train” (usually performed by an African-American man), “the brother you call” is inexplicably white at Longwood. Kevin Hanley has a powerful tenor with an impressive falsetto in the mega-high range but the stuffing has been knocked out of the song. Likewise the colorless “King of the World” which should stop the show but doesn’t.
Miriam Cross has a sweet, lyrical voice but her acting is minimal. If she had placed her foot from the get-go on the scaffolding (of Brie Frame’s clever set) for “Just One Step,” it would have gone a long way to cueing the audience in on the dark humor of the piece. The comic tone of the mock suicide is, alas, lost.
However, when the entire ensemble (the aforementioned and two Michaels (Gallagan and Chateauneuf) join together, as on Brown’s nod to the African-American spiritual, “I’ll Fly Away”---the harmonies in their “Flying Home” echo through the auditorium, topped by Saindon’s glorious, soaring soprano.