If you’re a card-carrying Jason Robert Brown fan, get your Urban Cowboy–loving butt to City Center pronto, where his first work, the 1995 revue Songs for a New World, is currently receiving a rapturous reception in an Encores! Off Center revival.
On the first night, each of the performers—Shoshana Bean, Colin Donnell, Mykal Kilgore, Solea Pfeiffer—received almost Audra McDonald–level entrance applause. Nearly every song was applauded after only a few introductory notes. And, well—you can imagine the curtain call. There was nearly a riot.
No contemporary musical theater composer has a more passionate fan base than Brown. (Or a more youthful one, for that matter: The median audience-member age at Songs must have been around 30.) And Songs for a New World proves time and again why he inspires such devotion. Though I maintain that The Last 5 Years is, start to finish, his best score—come at me, Parade and The Bridges of Madison County devotees!—Songs is a beautiful collection of numbers—including two of the best songs Brown has ever written.
You won’t have to wait long to hear the first one, “The New World”: “It’s about one moment/ That moment you think you know where you stand/ And in that one moment/ The things that you’re sure of slip from your hand.” The driving opening brings in Pfeiffer, Donnell, Bean, and Kilgore one by one, then brings their voices together in verse after verse and layer upon layer of buoyant, hopeful melody.
As for the second, “Stars and the Moon”—“I met a man without a dollar to his name/ Who had no traits of any value but his smile”—you’ve probably heard it in cabarets, audition rooms, concert halls, or on any number of solo albums from such Tony-winning stars as Audra McDonald (on her 1998 album, Way Back to Paradise), Betty Buckley (whose fast-paced, belt-it-if-you’ve-got-it version sounds like she’s running to catch a train), Rachel Bay Jones (singing it with a gentle twang on her Broadway-meets-country album, Showfolk), and Sutton Foster (who pretty much kills it on her just-released album Take Me to the World). And let’s not forget Jessica Molaskey’s gorgeous version on the original cast recording of Songs for a New World. Now add to that not-even-exhaustive list Shoshana Bean’s beautifully understated version now being performed Off Broadway. It’s easy to see why Bean is one of Brown’s favorite interpreters of his music (the two have frequently performed together); she’s got a voice that glides through his signature key changes with an ease most singers would kill for. But it’s in a simple storytelling song such as “Stars and the Moon” that she truly shines.
Brown could hardly have asked for better performers—Pfeiffer, at her loveliest in the ballad “Christmas Lullaby,” is a real find, and Kilgore is a vocal powerhouse (though he could have dispensed with one or two or 10 of those American Idol–style riffs and still slayed)—or a grander production, which includes extra musicians and new, beefed-up orchestrations. But I’m still scratching my head over the inclusion of an ensemble of five dancers, who seem to serve no purpose other than filling the expansive City Center stage. (Rennie Harris provided the incongruous hip-hop-heavy choreography.)
If all the numbers in Songs share a common theme—New beginnings? Moving on? Multiple lyrics that include the word “fly”?—you’ll have to search really hard for it. And please let me know when you find it. For instance: “Surabaya-Santa” is a terrifically clever riff on the Kurt Weill–Bertolt Brecht song “Surabaya-Johnny,” and it gives Bean a chance to play a drinking, smoking, sexed-up Mrs. Claus in a fur-trimmed corset (that thing is a wardrobe malfunction waiting to happen—and it almost did!). But what does that vampy number have to do with “On the Deck of a Spanish Sailing Ship, 1492”? Let’s stop looking for a connective thread and just appreciate Songs for a New World for what it is: an awesome concert.
Songs for a New World opened June 27, 2018, and runs through June 30. Tickets and information: nycitycenter.org