February 24, 2000.By Lavender.
Peter Rothstein has built a reputation as a master director of small-scale musicals, revues in particular. And his current production of James Robert Brown’s Songs for a New World only heightens it.
Songs for a New World is, in itself, unusual as a revue in various ways. To begin with, its narrative melodies spring from a single, contemporary composer/lyricist who is hardly a household name. (Revues tend to be the province of established paragons: Cole Porter, Stephen Sondheim, Irving Berlin.) The revue also lacks, although not necessarily to a fault, thematic cohesion. Its concerns are eclectic: tuneful reflections on concepts as diverse as romantic anguish, new starts in life, refugee babies, youth violence, and exploited housewives.
However, what connects these divergent notions is a consistent musical theme reminiscent of such different styles as gospel and night club jazz bands crossed with the pop and hip folk musical style of such 60s and early 70s groundbreakers as Jacques Brel and Stephen Schwarz. As with Brel, the ideas can indeed be said to be all over the place, yet the style and emotional sensibility cocreate a strangely luscious unity. An overarching transcendental feel to the whole piece dares the audience to be hopeful and joyous. This runs radically counter to so much of what has been put forth in theater of recent years. Nor does is come off as naïve or sentimental.
As director, Rothstein honors the transcendence, trusting Brown’s inherent spiritual power by going for directness and simplicity, and just telling the story. Therefore, Rothstein’s singers and musicians seem to have a sort of light – as in ray of light – energy that runs laser-like from the heart. Burgundy drapes sensuously arranged bring warmth, while gorgeous lighting soulfully arranged by technical director Jeff Sherman, in turn, serves the vision.
Rothstein’s musical director and pianist, Denise Prosek, delivers, as usual, superb accompaniment, with the groovy sounds of Kirk Radke on bass and Brian Glenn on drums and percussion.
However, Songs for a New World is fundamentally a vocal quartet whose success relies on powerful voices capable of poetic delicacy and enchantment. And to be sure, the Theater Latté Da singers meet this requirement. They infuse each number with vivid characterizations and evoke often ethereal moods that have nothing less than a transporting effect.
Vanessa Gamble rivets with the poignant “Christmas Lullaby.” Erin Schwab relishes an impressive comedic range from a New York Jewish prototype in “Just One Step” to the wifely frustrations of Mrs. Santa Claus in “Surabaya Santa.” Sam Kivi also nicely fills the shoes throughout as the revue’s rough equivalent of the dashing leading man. And David B. Young sparkles as well, although he is actually quite chilling, and appropriately so, in “The Steam Train,” which warns against individual indifference toward underprivileged youth.
For those who value superb musical technique and who are tired of the cynicism that has pervaded the performing arts for performing arts for so many years, Songs for a New World is a prayer answered.