Songs for a New World is not a typical piece of American musical theatre. There is no book or “story”, per se, with a standard beginning, middle and end. There are no characters to follow from Act I to Act II. There are no lavish production numbers and set and costuming are minimal.
“Songs…” is exactly what it says it is – a collection of stories told through song. They are by composer/lyricist Jason Robert Brown (The Last Five Years, Honeymoon in Vegas) and were apparently written over several years for several different projects while he performed in New York City nightclubs and piano bars. Brown has linked the 16 songs in the piece by the barest of threads. As Brown himself says, “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.” It’s about the choices we all make in life.
The production is a labor of love for producer Lucas Sherman, best known to the local theatre community for his work as musical director and pianist on numerous projects for a variety of companies. Sherman retains that role in this production as well as taking the reins of stage direction and performer. Joining Mr. Sherman for vocal duty are Robert Finney, Daniela Innocenti-Beem and Kat Ray. Mr. Sherman also retains piano-playing duty and is joined by Abe Newman on bass, Quinten Cohen on drums, and Erica Bergeron on percussion.
The songs are written and performed in a variety of styles ranging from pop and rock to gospel and jazz. Half are solos, the rest are duets or ensemble numbers. Some are comedic, some are dramatic, some are inspiring, some are downbeat. Regardless of tone or design, they all have the feel of musical theatre, so much so that you almost wish there were entire shows written around some of them.
For such a variety of style and themes, a versatile cast is required and Sherman provides one (including himself.) While experience does tell, each performer is given his or her own moment to shine. For Finney, it’s telling the story of a youth overcoming the hardships in life and pressing on in “The Steam Train.” Kat Ray’s moment came with “Just One Step” the darkly comedic tale of a woman’s futile attempt to get the attention of her husband from the ledge of their high-rise apartment building. Sherman acquits himself quite nicely with his earnest delivery of “She Cries”. Dani Beem, clearly the most experienced performer and most comfortable in a musical revue-type show, showed her versatility with her regret-filled woman looking back at what money couldn’t buy in “Stars and the Moon” and as a frustrated Mrs. Claus in the show-stopping “Surabaya Santa”. Beem also nicely duets with Sherman in “I’d Give It All for You”, a song about lovers reuniting after realizing they can’t be apart.
The aforementioned musicians provide these performers with excellent accompaniment which is no small feat due to the variety of styles at play. Being it’s really more of a staged concert than a full-fledged musical production and it’s staged in the Spreckels’ small Condiotti space, errors or missed notes would not be easily masked. No such concerns with these talented musicians. The musicians were just as much a pleasure to listen to as the singers.
Songs for A New World is a difficult show to review as it is actually 16 different shows in one. Rather than subject you to 16 mini reviews I’ll just say that, like in most shows, some songs hit better than others – both in form and delivery – but that collectively it’s a very appealing night of song and theatre. Because of its unfamiliarity, it’s the type of show that demands an audience’s attention. As with any good storytelling, there are rewards to be had from careful listening. You may not know the songs, but you’ll be glad you heard them.
Songs… can be heard Friday and Saturday nights and Sunday afternoons through May 7.
For more information, go to spreckelsonline.com