★★★☆☆ A theatrical song cycle delivering wonderful singing but less of the emotion.

Hayes Theatre Co, Sydney
August 13, 2016

Jason Robert Brown’s Songs for a New World is something of an oddity. Written in 1995 when he was just 25, it was his first produced show, signalling the arrival of a talented composer/lyricist when it had a short run off-Broadway. Brown went on to write the musicals Parade, The Last Five Years and The Bridges of Madison County, winning Tony Awards for the scores of Parade in 1999 and Madison County in 2014. However, Songs for a New World is not a musical as such but a theatrical song cycle.

There is no narrative. Instead it features 16 songs, each telling a self-contained story, with New York across the ages as the backdrop. The four performers – simply known as Woman 1 and 2, and Man 1 and 2 – play a series of unnamed, unrelated characters. What connects them is a loose theme about pivotal moments in life to do with love, unhappiness and ambition, leading to choices and new beginnings. And so we have, among others, the captain of a Spanish ship en route to a new country praying for the safety of those on board, a wealthy wife threatening to jump from the window ledge of her 57th floor apartment above Fifth Avenue to attract her husband’s attention, a young man pinning his hopes on basketball as a way out of the ghetto but aware of the odds stacked against him, a woman in 1775, sewing a flag as she prays that her husband and son will return from fighting in the American Revolution.

Teagan Wouters, Cameron MacDonald, Christopher Scalzo and Sophie Carter. Photo by Grant Leslie

Brown has a knack of telling a story succinctly in a song but it’s hard to invest emotionally in characters we meet so briefly before galloping on to the next. Musically, the show combines a mix of styles from Broadway (with echoes of Sondheim) to rock, blues and love ballads, while the uplifting opening sequence The New World is used as a recurring motif (becoming quite an ear-worm). Brown certainly knows how to write a catchy tune but by the end of the show, despite several beautiful melodies, we are left feeling that there is a sameness to much of the music.

This production from Blue Saint Productions, had a very well received season in Melbourne in June. It arrives at Sydney’s Hayes Theatre Co with only Teagan Wouters from the original cast, joined by Sophie Carter, Cameron MacDonald and Christopher Scalzo – all of them experienced, talented musical theatre performers. Luke Joslin directs a terrific production. Designer Jacob Battista has taken his cue from the second song On the Deck of a Sailing Ship, 1492 for the set. The sails are tattered and there are graffiti names and dates all over the mast and wooden deck. As the show progresses, we realise – helped by Matthew Tunchon’s lighting – that they refer to the characters in the songs. Joslin has included some theatrical touches to link the songs such as the reappearance of a colourful child’s backpack, some shot glasses and other props in different songs. Beyond that, it’s up to us to make our own connections.

After Woman 1 (Wouters) sings I’m Not Afraid of Anything in which a young woman realises she has been held back by the fears of the people she loves, the revelation that she is “afraid” in another song has an added resonance. To have Woman 2 (Carter) who threatens suicide in Just One Step subsequently sing Stars and the Moon, in which a woman marries for money only to realise how much she has sacrificed, makes for another narrative echo. Woman 1 and Man 2, who end up singing I’d Give it All for You in which they realise after separating that they were unhappier apart, could perhaps be part of one story. But even within such a loose theme, several songs such as Christmas Lullaby sit rather oddly (albeit beautifully sung by Wouters).

Teagan Wouters, Christopher Scalzo, Sophie Carter and Cameron MacDonald. Photo by Grant Leslie

Leading a three-piece band (piano, drums and bass), visible at the back of the stage, Lucy Bermingham’s musical direction brings the score to dynamic life. The four actors are all powerhouse vocalists and the singing is wonderful. Carter has several of the most effective songs – not only Just One Step and Stars and the Moon but the comic Surabaya-Santa, a Kurt Weill-inspired number in which a sozzled Mrs Claus, who has had it up to here with life at the North Pole, lets rip at her inattentive husband. But each of the cast deliver committed performances, bringing as much as they can by way of character and emotion to the songs.

But despite the impressive production, the songs don’t really touch the heart as much as they perhaps would within the context of a stronger narrative. However, the quality of the singing seemed enough for many in the audience, who gave it an enthusiastic response.

Songs for a New World plays at the Hayes Theatre Co until August 28