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.