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Songs for a New World

by Peter Hurley

Billed as a song cycle, rather than a musical, Songs for a New World is actually more than the sum of its parts, at least in this production at Chapel off Chapel by Blue Saint.

In terms of form, this piece perhaps comes closest to Revue; each song is a scene in itself, and so there is no need for the audience to retain threads of plot from previous scenes. I knew this coming in, and yet it took me a little way into the show before I relaxed into that aspect, and I noticed from other audience comments that some others perhaps found this aspect a little challenging too. Perhaps at least in part it’s because such care and detail was given to the staging that it looked and felt like a musical in the full sense of the word.

In so many musicals, some of the most memorable moments are written for the points in the plot where someone contemplates a huge change in their life circumstance – change by choice or not: joyous change, uncertain change, or fearful change. Songs for a New World is a concentration of those moments – each song/scene/character is facing one such change – and we are left with a range of contemplations on which of these we’ve passed through ourselves, which our friends and other people face, and which we might hope not to face – it’s a full range of emotions covered – there are alternately smiles of recognition, comedy, and then bracing confrontation.

The four performers – each true triple threat singer/actor/dancers – are Linden Furnell, Natalie O’Donnell, John O’Hara and Teagan Wouters. All are relatively young, but with already impressive performance biographies, and are clearly all on the way up. The skills, range and sheer quality of their work in Songs for a New World was breathtaking. I look forward to seeing each of them in whatever they choose to perform next. Solos, duets and ensemble numbers were all presented with such musicianship and dramatic connection that once again, we are left with a feeling that this is so much more than a song cycle.

This show is now just over twenty years old, and though there haven’t been many opportunities for music theatre audiences to see it, some of the songs have already gathered sufficient fame that on opening night, I could hear the unmistakable sounds of excited anticipation among members of the audience “I wonder what she/he will do with this one!” In every case, the treatment both satisfied expectations, and delighted with originality.

For me, one such moment was the number Surabaya Santa – a comic homage to the Kurt Weill song of love and devotion misplaced with the ‘girl in every port’ lover. Here, we laugh at the ever-increasing evidence of the non-compatibility of the married couple. Citing neglect as abuse, our bitter soon-to-be ex-wife delivers a one sided diatribe, passing through all the stages of the relationship breakdown. The climax is her spectacular emotional meltdown, underscored by curdled versions of well-known Christmas songs. Why is it just so screamingly funny – the desperate wrapping of emotional pain in Hallmark card tinsel and sugar?

Composer and lyricist Jason Robert Brown is well known to the cognoscenti of Musical Theatre, probably less so to the wider public. His writing is at once colourful, dramatic and yet natural. The range of colours and musical textures in this piece as wide and satisfying as any full scale musical.

The relationship of text to music is exemplary – the natural inflections of speech are the starting points for both melodic shape and rhythm, and the result is that every song has it’s own character, and following the story from the lyrics is natural and effortless for the listener. The melodic lines are not without their passages of extending the performers to the edge of their ability however – the melodies and textures are also superbly driven by the dramatic content.

To an extent, we can hear the influence of Sondheim, but Jason Robert Brown does clearly have his own sound.

Blue Saint is quickly earning a reputation for excellence in this field for me – as with the previously reviewed Violet, the production achieves such excellence. The sound is superbly balanced throughout – every word was clear and easily comprehended, in part due to the sound design of Kelvin Gedye and sound engineer Sebastian Hammond, but also due to the musicianship of the band under Musical Director Geoffrey Castles. Percussionist Tom Doublier must be one of the most sensitive musicians working in this field at the moment, showing such control over tone at every dynamic level. It is a delight to hear the singing so thoughtfully supported, in addition to the drama of the incidental music contributing to the whole.

Credit to Director Luke Joslin, whose imaginative staging illuminated the drama in each of the songs, yet managed to develop an over arching feel to the piece as a whole. Designer Jacob Battista set the piece on a the tattered remains of a sailing ship, with evocative graffiti of names and dates gave a metaphor for the transformative changes we approach, and contemplation of the changes others must face.

The picture of Natalie O’Donnell is by Ben Fon.

This production of Songs for a New World is at Chapel off Chapel until June 12. 

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