Theater Review: SONGS FOR A NEW WORLD (SF Playhouse)

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by Tony Frankel on December 16, 2020

in Theater-San Francisco / Bay Area,Virtual


Like a breath of fresh air, Jason Robert Brown’s Songs for a New World far exceeded my expectations of both virtual theater and Brown’s uneven song cycle. This is an early work from the Tony-winner for Parade and Bridges of Madison County. “It’s about one moment,” Brown said. “It’s about hitting the wall and having to make a choice, or take a stand, or turn around and go back.” Um, kind of.

It’s a 1995 collection of trunk songs he cobbled together with Harold Prince’s daughter, Daisy, which means the plot-free entertainment is only as good as the last song. Some of them are forgettable, generic cabaret tunes from the 1980s Maltby & Shire school of “hitting the wall and having to make a choice,” while others are catchy and showcase Brown’s rhythmic, pounding, jazzy, riffing piano score (played here with assured intensity by Dave Dobrusky sitting upstage at the San Francisco Playhouse). Even when songs are derivative of the piano-bar era of lore, they can be awfully pretty, and each one is beautifully arranged with lush harmonies. Above all, we have an exuberant quartet with powerhouse voices, ensuring that our interest never lags.

The songs which tell a standalone story work best, and when this company’s super-professional ethic and gorgeous blend merges with these gems, the result is uplifting and energizing magic. John Paul Gonzalez, Cate Hayman, Rodney Earl Jackson, Jr. and Katrina Lauren McGraw present terrific vocals, yes, but with superb diction and a refusal to overplay the songs for effect while maintaining a refreshing edginess — this ain’t American Idol, it’s singing from the soul.

The evening’s highlights are the same in almost every production: “Just One Step” has a desperate wife threatening to jump off a ledge to garner attention; “Stars and the Moon” is a gorgeous, bittersweet narrative about a woman who chooses trinkets over love; and “Surabaya-Santa” presents Mrs. Claus as a disgruntled wife (the Weimar era tune is a parody of Brecht’s “Surabaya Johnny”). Given the restraints of the plexiglass-separated playing area, Bill English’s direction is quite inventive, eschewing the singer-at-a-mike phenomenon for atmospheric storytelling; he knows when to expand the proceedings and when to plant a singer. Nicole Helfer’s simple choreography is a perfect choice for the small space, which is creatively lit by Heather Kenyon.

photos by Jessica Palopoli

Songs for a New World
San Francisco Playhouse
ends on December 31, 2020
for tickets, call 415-677-9596 or visit SF Playhouse

{ 1 comment }

Kim December 20, 2020 at 10:53 am

I think it should be mentioned that all three of those memorable songs were performed by Katrina Lauren McGraw.

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