A few weeks back, while reviewing Salomé, I made note of the delicate balance between audience enjoyment and artistic message. Specifically, I wished to emphasize artists’ tendency to forsake one aspect to bolster another, unaware of the damage it brings to the production. There’s a similar scale I wish to speak about today, the balancing of story and theme. While it’s impossible to be completely devoid of either in a staged piece it is possible to throw a significant portion of the production’s weight on one side of the scale. This isn’t as precarious as the entertainment/statement scale mentioned previously, but it should nonetheless be handled with care. Much like choosing a medium to tell one’s story, it’s worth considering whether the piece one wishes to create would more greatly benefit from a stronger emphasis on plot or theme (or to balance the two).
Songs for a New World is a song cycle written and composed by Jason Robert Brown that connects 16 unrelated musical numbers which share the theme of decisions. More specifically, each vignette builds up to, or reflects on, the moment in which a choice is made which changes someone’s life forever. The songs cover a range of topics (i.e. regret, abandonment, recognition, wealth, etc.) as well as a variety of musical genres (i.e. show tune, jazz/lounge, pop, gospel, etc.). Other than the mini stories told within each sequence there is no overarching narrative to tie the whole show together; rather the theme maintains the structure.
Set on a nearly empty blackbox stage, occupied only by four chairs and the occasional prop or two, Carl and Lacey Gonzales (directors) cut out everything but the minimal essentials for their production. Naturally, this places an even heavier emphasis on the performers than is normally expected for the production’s success. The cast consists of two male and two female singers (McArthur Moore, Jeff Chamberlain, Kristin Hall, and Chelsea Manasseri) between whom there are only a handful of spoken lines, so their vocal talents are what need to carry the show. Thankfully all four of the performers have beautifully singing voices that aren’t plagued by the musical theatre curse of poor audio mixing. If I had to nitpick (and I do) I’d say the ladies had greater control and range over their voices than the gentlemen who, while still lovely singers, occasionally struggled with some of the higher notes. Of the songs presented I’d have to say the two strongest numbers were Stars and the Moon sung by Manasseri, and The Steam Train led by Moore and backed up by the ensemble. Thinking back on it, most of the songs I preferred were in the first act, whereas the second act’s songs felt a little stale by comparison, though this is the eternal curse of musical theatre (I dare you to find a musical in which the Act II songs are greater as a whole than the Act I songs). Keeping to the stripped-down nature of the production, the band consists entirely of a keyboardist, bassist, and percussionist (Tyler Mabry, Carl Gonzales, and Andrew Heger respectively) who are able to create a wide range of melodies and genres through three instruments. That being said, Mabry clearly led the production as his talents on the keyboard were impressive audibly and visibly (just watch his hands as he performs).
Tech-wise the show uses only what it needs to get by. The cast don a variety of trendy, modern costumes as the scenes require, and the lighting is noticeable yet subtle, depending mostly on shades of blue and red to emphasize shifts in emotion. Otherwise it’s difficult to find more to say about the production. As a song cycle, Songs for a New World is as far along the theme-to-plot spectrum it can be without being entirely devoid of plot, which I’m not entirely sure is possible. In regards to my personal preference I find it hard to stay invested when each scene is something entirely new, and the overarching plot is nonexistent. That isn’t a fair analysis. Songs for a New World and Oh Dragon Theatre Company absolutely succeed at what they set out to accomplish, it just so happens that what they sought to create isn’t necessarily what I, as a lover of plot and character arcs, find appealing. But for those of you who can appreciate the thematic binding of 16 well-sung songs, or simply enjoy the songs as a musical showcase, then Songs for a New World is a certainly decisive performance to be seen.
Songs for a New World by Oh Dragon Theatre Company continues playing at the Trinity Street Players every Thursday, Friday, and Saturdayat 8pm until September 17th.