Posted on July 1, 2010 at 8:21 am
Marty Hughley’s article in The Oregonian here.
Composer Jason Robert Brown highlights Portland’s summer of…Jason Robert Brown
Published: Thursday, July 01, 2010, 12:33 AM
Updated: Thursday, July 01, 2010, 1:23 AM
Marty Hughley, The Oregonian
“I had always planned, somewhere along the line,” Jason Robert Brown told the audience, “to be Billy Joel.”
Jason Robert Brown joked that he was so close to the audience at the Miracle Theatre that he could “collect DNA samples.” His fans didn’t mind the intimate setting.
Well, not everyone who wants to be a rock star ends up as one, and Brown’s skills as pianist and songwriter took him in a different direction, landing him not in arenas but on Broadway.
Even so, he might have felt at least a little like a rock star in Sunday night at Miracle Theatre, where a sold-out house of musical-theater aficionados greeted him with a roaring standing ovation, hung on his every word throughout a 90-minute solo set and a 45-minute question-and-answer session, and mobbed him (politely) for autographs during a post-show reception.
Brown may not be as widely known as Billy Joel, but he has won a Tony Award and established himself as a leading voice among a younger generation of composers (he’s recently turned 40 but first made his mark on Broadway while in his 20s) who’ve brought a rock-bred sensibility to the American musical.
Those who don’t know his work have a few more chances this summer to get acquainted. Brown is the focus of a series of events being produced jointly by the little musical-theater company Staged! and the Miracle Theatre Group, for which this weekend is prime time. A spirited production of “Songs for a New World,” — which, as an Off-Broadway revue in 1995, launched Brown’s career — runs through Saturday. Late Friday night, one of the city’s most talented singer/actors, Isaac Lamb, will star with Courtney Freed in a one-night-only performance of “The Last Five Years” (which also made for a fine Stumptown Stages production two years ago), Brown’s ingeniously structured and incisively emotional look at the dissolution of his own first marriage.
“Parade,” the 1999 show that earned Brown won his Tony Award for best score, and his more recent tale of adolescent social struggles, “13,” will be the basis for a pair of educational workshops, running July 19-30 for ages 10-14 and Aug. 2-13 for older teens. Then the series will conclude Aug. 19 with a cabaret featuring various Portland musical-theater stalwarts dipping into Brown’s songbook.
Chanda Hall, artistic director for Staged!, says it was “Songs for a New World” in particular that led to the series.
“We feel kind of a kinship because we’re a young company and that was a show he wrote as a young man,” she says. “It felt right because it’s an accessible work but also a difficult one that would challenge us.”
For Miracle, which focuses largely on bilingual plays with Hispanic cultural themes, the collaboration is a way to utilize its Southeast Portland theater during the off season, and to build broader connections with audiences and the artistic community.
“We love music, and we love music in our space, (which allows it to be) intimate, up-close, acoustic,” says marketing director Tim Krause. “We came to appreciate the aesthetic that Staged! has of stripping musicals down to their essence.”
So far, the biggest impediment to success for the series, Krause feels, has been the late arrival of sunny weather, which has made Portlanders gravitate to outdoor activities.
“The audiences have been smaller than we hoped, but the experience has been even greater than we expected,” he says.
The heat, however, hardly interfered with the enthusiasm on Sunday, which Brown described in a message on his web site as “a really warm (in both senses of the word) and fun concert…in Portland, my first-ever visit to this beautiful city.”
Though it’s possible a few folks in the excited crowd weren’t JRB fans coming in, it’s unlikely any remained unconverted by evening’s end.
For starters, Brown’s piano playing verged on the breathtaking, characterized by rhythmic drive and complexity, and a kind of glistening melodic architecture that subsumed decades of pop vernacular into the refined emotive machinery of Broadway. He delivered his songs (which have been covered by such magnificent singers as Audra McDonald) in an assured, flexible baritone. And he created some of the most exciting moments by inviting the — surprised and thrilled — cast members from “Songs for a New World” (which he’d seen earlier in the afternoon) to perform with him.
As witty and engaging as he was in his between-song banter, he was even more so during the Q&A, addressing his working methods (“By the time I get the first line, the song will be done by the end of the day; but what it takes to get me to the first line is often months”); the shortcomings of his early songs (“‘Stars and the Moon,’ I mean, I’m glad people like it and I even like it but…the whole premise of the song is farcockt!”); the importance of emotional honesty in singers (“There are a lot of great voices, but there are very few great singers”); of Hal Prince giving him his breakthrough with “Parade” (“If he had given me a musical about the history of vacuum cleaners, I’d have said, ‘I’m on it!’”).
The one question he shied from, though, might have told us the most. Asked how he felt about the state of musical theater, he replied, “I’ve learned at great cost not to expound on that…I do it the way I think it should be done and just leave it at that.”