A Luscious Unity.

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.

Latte’s ‘Songs’ tasty, but where’s the caffeine?

February 7, 2000.By Dominic Papatola, Pioneer Press.

Devotees of musicals whisper the name of Jason Robert Brown in  the same hushed tones of reverence that folks in Wisconsin reserve for Vince Lombardi.

The young composer's score for the short-lived Broadway musical "Parade'' won the 1999 Tony Award, thus minting him as The Future of American Musical Theater. That play doesn't seem Minnesota-bound in the near future, but Brown's first crack at musical theater -- a 1995 revue called "Songs for a New World'' -- is available locally in a production at the Bryant-Lake Bowl.

Theater Latte Da's staging is pleasing, both in terms of material and performance, but not overwhelmingly so.

Brown's score is a pastiche of ballads, historical anthems, patter songs and up tempo tunes. Its musical lineage is diverse. At its best, it draws reference from a pair of Stephens. From Sondheim (of "Sunday in the Park With George'' and "A Little Night Music'' fame), he draws a fondness for minor chord play and tricky meters. From Schwartz ("Godspell,'' "Pippin''), he gleans a knowing ear for a catchy-sounding musical hook.

On the downside, though, Brown's music sometimes suggests a kind of Disney-fied homogeneity, the kind of amiable pop sound that's hummable but emotionally cheap. This particularly comes through in his lyrics, which are frequently drippy and all too often fix their dreamy gaze inward toward the minor angsts of upper-middle-class life.

There's no dialogue in the show, so the collection of unrelated tunes must ride on their own strength and on that of the quartet of performers delivering them. Director Peter Rothstein wisely opts for a minimal staging that's just a shade more theatrical than one would find in a cabaret setting. In this setting, Erin Schwab glitters in a gem of a performance. Best known for her winning turn as the eponymous bride in "Tony n' Tina's Wedding,'' Schwab here proves herself the kind of performer who alone is worth the price of the ticket. She fully inhabits every moment of her three solos, creating nearly perfect character studies and even making an ultra-smarmy song called "Stars and the Moon'' feel genuine. During ensemble numbers, you can see and feel her cast mates feeding off her energy.

The rest of the foursome is skilled but not as impressive. Vanessa Gamble's lovely musical-theater voice is shown to good advantage, but without the comforts of a character, she looks uncomfortable onstage. The same goes for Sam Kivi, who is a serviceable singer but a better actor. David B. Young takes almost the entire 90-minute show to warm up: He delivers the goods in the show's penultimate number, "Flying Home,'' but is tentative for most of the rest of the evening.

Musical director/pianist Denise Prosek heads a fine onstage trio that also includes Kirk Radke on bass and percussionist Brian Glenn. They give the music a bright finish. With the cast, they also demonstrate that, even if Jason Robert Brown isn't quite ready to bear the entire future of American musical theater on his shoulders, his is a career to be watched.

Songs for a New World

February 2, 2000.By Claire Adamsick, City Pages.

In its spunky rendition of composer Jason Robert Brown’s off-Broadway revue, Theater Latté Da has steamed up an involving musical song cycle. Blending R&B, gospel, and pop, Songs for a New World offers a rather gentle and cautious examination of assorted Big Issues. Cast members Erin Scwab, Vanessa Gamble, Sam Kivi, and David B. Young, accompanied by a jazz trio, go from the deck of a Spanish sailing ship to the basketball court and tale of an aspiring star. An inspiration theme song, “A New World,” threads the various plot strains together. While all four performers belt out ballads and groove in harmony to uptempo numbers, love tunes like “I’d Give it All for You” and “The World Was Dancing” seem a bit too frothy for the Bryant-Lake Bowl. Yet adds a bit of spice to the syrupy proceedings. Directed by Peter Rothstein, with musical direction by Denise Prosek.

Despite lack of context, Brown revue has charm.

January 28, 2000.By William Randall Beard, Star Tribune.

Local audiences are unlikely to be familiar with Jason Robert Brown, even though he won a 1999 Tony Award for the musical “Parade.” That’s one reason to be grateful to Theater Latte Da for presenting “Songs For a New World,” a new revue of Brown’s material from “Parade” and other shows. It’s unfortunate, though, that the presentation doesn’t serve as a better introduction.

These days, revues are primarily retrospectives, a chance to rediscover and reminisce over more or less familiar songs. In this case, Theatre Latte Da is to be applauded for offering new material, even though the production’s style might be more appropriate to an evening of standards.

With red velvet drapes and red plush upholstery, the Bryant-Lake Bowl Theater takes on the look of a classic nightclub. Theater Latte Da has done more-theatrical revues in the past, but the presentation here is appropriate to the set: It’s very stand-up-and-sing. The four singers are grouped tastefully, sitting or standing in front of microphones.

Peter Rothstein’s direction is simple and unobtrusive, perhaps too much so. These are theater songs, but robbed of any theatrical context they make little emotional impression. More than once, I found myself wishing to know the situation the songs had been designed to illuminate, to make the emotions a little less abstract.

One song that stands out as a glaring exception is “Just One Step,” where an unhappily married woman (Erin Schwab) threatens to jump off a 53rd floor ledge. Aside from being very funny, the scene is dramatically alive enough to truly involve the audience.

Part of the effect must be credited to the performance of Schwab. Beyond her strong musical-comedy voice, she is born to perform in this format. Whenever she is onstage she is instinctively working to connect with her audience.

Vanessa Gable seems less at home in the style. She has a more refined voice, but her aloof stage presence means that she makes less of an impact.

David B. Young and Sam Kivi have strong voices and know how to use them to create characters and tell stories. But the songs still ended up sounding like generic pop musical-comedy ballads too often.

The four were at their best in the many ensembles. Music director Denise Prosek deserves credit for drawing strong performances from the four singers and for leading the three instrumentalists who accompany them.

Brown is clearly a composer to watch. Anyone interested in the future of the American musical probably will be interested in “Songs For a New World.” There is much to give pleasure, even if the effect of the evening is not all one might have hoped for.

Opens Friday

January 16, 2000.By Rohan Preston, Star Tribune.

Composet and lyricist Jason Robert Brown, who won a 1998 Tony Award for “Parade,” bats up against walls of all sorts in “Songs for a New World.” The cabaret, getting its area premiere at the intimate Bryant-Lake Bowl in a Theater Latté Da presentation, limns characters such as a would-be basketball player and starlet who dreams of marrying rich. It is staged by Peter Rothstein with musical director Denise Prosek and stars top-drawer singers Vanessa Gamble, David B. Young, Sam Kivi, and Erin Schwab.