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.