Friday, August 19, 2016

Gloucester Stage’s “Songs for a New World” A Treat for Musical Theater Devotees By Michael Hoban

Songs for a New World – Written and Composed by Jason Robert Brown; Directed by Robert Walsh; Music Direction by Bethany Aiken; Choreography by Sarah Hickler; Sound Design by John David Eldridge; Scenic Design by Jenna McFarland Lord; Costume Design by Charles Schoonmaker; Lighting Design by Russ Swift; Presented by Gloucester Stage Company at 267 E. Main St. Gloucester through August 27. 

It is rare that I read the notes before going to any theatrical performance (with the exception of Shakespeare), but for “Songs for a New World” I wished I had. I say this because it probably would have made the numbers even more impactful had I viewed the production as a theatrical whole rather than just as a (very good) revue. Which is not to diminish in any way the hugely entertaining production being mounted by the Gloucester Stage Company (running through August 27th). 

“Songs” is a theatrical song cycle composed by Tony Award winner Jason Robert Brown, and features a cast that seamlessly blends Broadway veterans with local talent with no discernible drop in performance level. As the company sings in the rousing opening title number, "It's about one moment. It's about hitting the wall and having to make a choice, or take a stand, or turn around and go back." So while that may have been the theme that ran through the show, each of the story-songs – whether sung solo or in ensemble – work very well on their own. These are well-crafted theatrical pieces that are even more remarkable when one considers that Brown wrote them when he was only 25 (I did eventually read the notes). And while not quite as adventurous as “Jacques Brel” (which GSC did a brilliant job with in 2014), it’s a winner.

Following the rousing opener, the company launched into "On the Deck of a Spanish Sailing Ship, 1492" – a gospel-styled number in which the captain (Chris Pittman) prays for the souls of his passengers. But not all of the numbers are so overarching. There are numbers about failed romantic relationships as well as life events, with “Stars and Moon” being the highlight of the solo performances. The ode to regret is an absolute gem as sung by Broadway performer Barbara Walsh, who was equally engaging in the very funny "Surabaya Santa", about a very unhappy Mrs. Claus, who is tired of spending Christmas alone. Wendy Waring, another New York import, is terrific in “Just One Step” about a married woman threatening her husband “Murray” with suicide by jumping from a ledge (although it wasn’t clear that was her intent until late in the song due to the staging), and she also shone in several other numbers, including “I'm Not Afraid Of Anything” as a young wife who clearly is afraid of quite a bit. The rakishly handsome Jack Donahue deftly handles the role of suave crooner in several numbers, and really hits the mark with “The World Was Dancing”. 

The homegrown talent more than held their own in this production. Pittman delivered a powerful rendition of “King of the World” (about a man spending his life in prison) and brings da funk in “Steam Train” about a basketball hotshot. I was also surprised to read that Nyah Macklin was an undergraduate at Brandeis, as her beautiful soprano augmented her more experienced female counterparts in several numbers, including her work in “Flagmaker 1775” about the anguish of a woman whose son and husband are fighting in the Revolutionary War. 

Not every number is a home run, but this is a consistently entertaining production, and a great night (or afternoon) out for musical theater fans. For more info, go to: