Posted on May 19, 2007 at 2:47 pm

Brad Hathaway’s review here.

Songs for a New World
May 16-17, 2007
A Potomac Stages pick for thrilling performances with the composer at the piano
Reviewed by Brad Hathaway

Signature Theatre has presented concert stagings of musicals before, but it was outdoor in a park in Arlington. Now, they present a rousing, touching and often thrilling concert version of a show in the biggest enclosed space they’ve ever had. No 86-seat Gunston Theatre Two, or 136-seat Garage, or 399-seat Max … the Music Center at Strathmore has almost 2,000 seats. It is a room dedicated to music listening. The sixteen songs of Jason Robert Brown (Parade, Urban Cowboy) fill it with music that not only deserves to be listened to – it demands attention. Brown himself sits at the piano, backed by a quartet of really good instrumentalists supporting four great musical theater performers who not only sing each song with musical power, they treat each song as a scene to be played with full dramatic or comedic power. Mounting this show as a concert loses nothing of the impact of its original concept because it was never conceived as anything more than a series of thematically connected songs. With voices of Laura Griffith, Brian d’Arcy James, Alice Ripley and Tituss Burgess, the evening is a parade of one strong number after another delivered with power, punch and pizzazz.

Storyline: At age twenty-five, songwriter Jason Robert Brown pulled together sixteen of the songs he had written for various projects (shows, cabaret, concerts) and director Daisy Prince found a common theme to make a show of the pieces. The theme is the moment of decision, the point at which you transition from the old to the new. The change may be geographical, emotional, professional or marital, but things are different than they were before. The result is neither musical play nor revue, it is closer to a theatrical song cycle, a very theatrical song cycle.
Brown writes intensely personal, highly dramatic songs. They range from country-ish story songs to gospel tinged wails and from pop colored romps to solo pieces of either concentrated personal revelation or slightly off-beat comedy. There’s a pregnant woman’s expression of wonder at creation, the story of a would-be basketball star aching to escape the dead-end world of failure, the lament of a couple who broke up only to find their separate ways led nowhere, even the hopes and fears for the future that weigh heavily on the explorers sailing to find a new world in 1492, and the flag maker creating the banner for a new nation in 1775. Each song is musically distinctive and dramatically effective. Brown’s skill as a performer was on display as well. He played the piano with a passion and even a certain freshness that is notable since he must have played these arrangements hundreds of times since he wrote them.

The strongest single performance of the evening comes from a young woman named Laura. That would not have surprised many when it was first announced that the cast would include Tony nominee Laura Benanti. But Benanti had to pull out of the project and her replacement is another Laura – Laura Griffith. She was simply fabulous, hitting every note and enunciating every word with clarity while communicating the drama or comedy of each moment. Nearly as impressive was Brian d’Arcy James, himself a Tony Award nominee who’s often found impressing audiences on Broadway (Sweet Smell of Success, Titanic, The Apple Tree). His power was on display here, especially when teamed with Griffith on “The World Was Dancing.” The other Tony Award nominee in the cast is Alice Ripley (Side Show) who is also well known to Potomac Region theatergoers for her work on Shakespeare in Hollywood at Arena Stage and Company at the Kennedy Center. Her comic skills on “Just One Step” and “Surabaya-Santa” were contrasted with an equally impressive dramatic touch on “Stars and the Moon.”

Michael Baron directed this presentation. He avoided any temptation to add gimmicks or extraneous diversions, while, at the same time, letting the cast act the songs/scenes rather than just stand center-stage and belt. The only prop used is a single baseball cap for Tituss Burgess for his biggest solo – the song in which he becomes the would-be basketball star who hopes to become famous as “The Steam Train.” Burgess can create character and attitude without props, however. His two finger tracing of tears is one of the simplest and most effective moves of the evening, while Alice Ripley’s toss of an imagined wedding ring is a gem of a gesture. The cast had a week of rehearsals in which to master the material. The lyrics aren’t simple and no one was carrying their script. The lighting design, however, was a bit too complicated resulting in too many moments where a key vocalist was outside his or her spotlight.

Music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown. Conceived by Daisy Prince. Directed by Michael Baron. Music direction by Jason Robert Brown. Cast: Tituss Burgess, Laura Griffith, Brian d’Arcy James, Alice Ripley. Musicians: Jason Robert Brown, Brian Dunne, Shawn Galvin, Randy Landau, Gary Sieger.