Cross oceans to hear this production
By Sally McKenzie
It’s hard to believe that Jason Robert Brown’s first major off-Broadway production, Songs For A New World, debuted over 20 years ago. Its music is timeless and remarkably beautiful. Each song portrays an individual’s journey as he or she is forced to make crucial life choices when things don’t go to plan.
Luke Joslin (Director) and Geoffrey Castles (Musical Director) have staged a most impressive version of this classic in the Loft performance space at Chapel off Chapel. Joslin effectively establishes a theme of an ocean journey to a ‘New World’ by setting the stage as the deck of a ship with a mast and tattered sail and ropes. The sounds of the ocean and waves rolling in played as patrons entered, and as they leave the space. Patches of graffiti are painted on the ship to provide extra evidence of people traveling through and making their own ‘mark’ on the world.
In song cycles such as this, with four actors performing multiple roles, it is difficult for the audience to become attached to any particular character as they pass through each song. In this musical it is much easier to be moved by the music itself – particularly the lush harmonies in the ensemble songs such as ‘Flying Home’ or ‘Hear my Song’, or the more well-known and loved opening song ‘A New World’. The musical direction in this production is outstanding. Castles is obviously a master of vocal direction. The blend of the cast’s voices is sublime and for me, the highlight of the show. Songs For A New World requires a virtuoso pianist – and Castles is also brilliant in this role. It was disappointing not to see his name listed as pianist in the band credits in the program. Another important feature missing from the program was a song list – a must in a sung-through show.
Anthony Chircop (on electric and acoustic bass) executes the part with great flair as does Tom Doublier on drums and percussion. The trio of musicians are positioned behind the mast and mostly visible, and this group is definitely the dream team in my book for a show like this. They take a much-deserved bow with the cast at the end of the show.
The show is well-cast all round. Linden Furnell’s (Man 2) warmth and ease of tone is well-suited to songs such as ‘She Cries’ and his duet ‘I’d Give It All For You’. I particularly enjoyed his portrayal of the ukelele larrikin busker in ‘The River Won’t Flow’. I was most impressed with John O’Hara. His voice is exceptional. His solo in ‘On The Deck of A Spanish Sailing Ship’ and in ‘Flying Home’ are the two vocal highlights in this production. O’Hara soars through his upper range and delivers every note and word with heartfelt emotion. He is truly captivating.
Teagan Wouters (Woman 1) gives a beautiful rendition of ‘I’m Not Afraid of Anything’ – always a difficult song to execute technically and to find the right balance of vulnerability and strength, and Wouters delivers this without over-singing the song. Natalie O’Donnell as Woman 2 has the job of performing the majority of the ‘character songs’ in the show (such as ‘Sarabaya Santa’, ‘Just One Step’) but I found her particularly endearing and engaging as she led the finale ‘Hear My Song’. It is one of the rare moments of the show when eye contact is made with the audience and I felt like I was part of the story instead of being an outside observer. Too many of the songs are focused ‘straight ahead’. In a show that can potentially become too much like a concert, it is important to find more ways of involving the audience and making them feel part of the journey.
Staging and blocking is, on the whole, simple but effective, as was the lighting and costuming. Sound design is fabulous and hard to fault– I loved the addition of maximum reverb to the band –particularly to the congas and double bass in songs such as ‘King of The World’. It was also added tastefully to the singing.
Songs For A New World runs from June 2nd-12th at Chapel off Chapel. This show is a musical masterpiece. Fans of the music will not be disappointed.
Image by Ben Fon