Pound for pound you have to admit that New York has the most talented selection of performers of any city on the planet. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.
That being said I must admit that I am spoiled when it comes to Jason Robert Brown. The first time I heard his music was at the Cafe Carlyle in November of 2016. We were all still in sun mode here after the election and John Pizzarelli and Jessica Molaskey opened their show with Hope. Mr. Brown had penned this song on the day after the election.
I come to sing a song about hope
I'm not inspired much right now, but even so
I came out here to sing a song. So here I go
I guess I think
That if I tinker long enough, one might appear
And look! It's here
One verse is done
The work's begun
I don't know how you follow that, but this Encores! Off-Center production of Songs for a New World does a pretty good job.
The entire evening is tailored and tweaked to show off the talent assembled. And the audience was appreciative in the extreme from the start. As a matter of fact, they were so appreciative that I felt like the Plus One at a family reunion. Each of the performers entrances (one at a time for maximum effect) evoked a special cheer from the audience. I was clueless. Surprise.
The performers revealed spectacular voices that blended and soared seamlessly. So seamlessly that within a few minutes they started to sound alike. It is the Disney effect I think, where the music begins to sound like it was a soundtrack for a movie. Not that this is a bad thing – it is just on the dull side.
The standout performance, to my mind, was Shoshana Bean. Perhaps it was her specific material, or perhaps it was that she was more focused on the story of her songs, which then took care of the delivery. A hilarious but sincere Surabaya Santa is an homage to the sexy babe that Mrs. Claus once was and which is exploding with vengeance before our eyes. As well, Bean delivers Stars and The Moon with the flat acceptance that the romantic choices she made based on material things, the ones that seemed so correct, may just have been the wrong ones. The Flagmaker, 1775 is the tale of a woman who clings to pragmatism to stop her from drowning in fear.
The theme throughout is that life is made up of moments which, if we put our attention to them, are rich with possibilities. One step to the right or the left – which do we choose and how do we choose. Perhaps a step out of a jail. Or off of a building. Loves are revisited and paths retraced. Helplessness and hopefulness co-exist.
Brown is an exquisite poet, but it was not until I looked this program up on the Internet that I was made aware of the specificity of the stories that belonged to each song. A soldier crossing over after his own death, a lullaby to a child, a sea captain’s prayer, a wife’s desperate considerations. These songs were written independently and assembled here as a sort of song cycle. In this production the stories for the most part were secondary to the applauded lung power (which is substantial) and delivery style of the performers – and this includes the extraordinary if somewhat perplexing work of the dancers.
A special note here to the orchestra under the direction of Tom Murray which was, in a word, sublime. Real musicians, real actors, real dancers - get the picture?
That is the deal with Encores! A great deal of talent, dedication and passion goes into each Encores! show. That is the overwhelming feeling that greets you at the door. Everyone, and I mean e-v -e-r-y-o-n-e is thrilled to be at New York City Center. It is the perfect intimate venue for the job at hand. The cast has scripts in hand. The celebration is visceral. This exuberance cannot help but infect you.
So I say GO! Enjoy what you like and let the rest fly off into the rafters. This is one of those marvelous theatre traditions (Like "Shakespeare in the Park") that only happens here in New York. The best city ever.
(Photo by Joan Marcus)
What the popular press says...
"There are plenty of musicals that welcome every bell and whistle that a director can throw at them — shows that, in the spareness of a concert performance, set spectators to dreaming about how gorgeous a full production might be. Then there are rarer creatures that demand simplicity above all — shows that find their true best form in concert. Jason Robert Brown’s Songs for a New World is one of these, currently flourishing in a glorious Encores! Off-Center iteration, savvily directed by Kate Whoriskey at New York City Center. In desperate need of a restorative evening? Here’s one."
Laura Collins-Hughes for New York Times
External links to full reviews from popular press...