Charity Means, Devin Jewrell Holley, Jess Harris Stiller, & Paul Stiller. Photo: Martin French
Songs for A New World
Music and Lyrics by Jason Robert Brown
Directed by Mandy Kramer
A review by Keith Waits
Entire contents are copyright © 2019 by Keith Waits. All rights reserved.
When is musical theatre not a musical, or a review, or a cabaret? Jason Robert Brown calls Songs for A New World a song cycle about “moments of decision” and that seems to fit, but I started watching Mandy Kramer’s production with little foreknowledge of what was coming.
In my mind, the phrase “new world” conjures up the early European explorers landing on the American continent, or more recent immigrants entering through Ellis Island, or crossing the southwestern border, and the second song, “On the Deck of a Spanish Ship – 1492” seemed to confirm that association, but Brown stubbornly refuses to let us rest on such a simple concept. As the rest of the music unspooled, I felt like we were being prompted to consider the essential uncertainty of life and how change forces us into new worlds of experience. Just when you think you have it figured out, allow yourself to feel comfortable or even complacent, the fates have a way of throwing you a curve.
The show is somewhat abstract as a whole, with a quartet of performers, Woman 1: Charity Means, Woman 2: Jess Stiller, Man 1: Devin Jewrell Holley, and Man 2: Paul Stiller, singing in various combinations. Even though each operated within emotional character archetypes, they were open enough that an audience member is solicited to impose their own subjective feelings into the experience.
Yet there is also very specific context for certain songs. “Surabaya Santa” imagines a Mrs. Claus bemoaning the fact that Santa has left her behind. Ms. Stiller enjoyed the one significant costume change and found every wry laugh in the piece with estimable skill. Later she made the audience feel the mournful blend of anguish and anger of “The Flagmaker, 1775”, a protest song of sorts that is set during the American War for Independence but couldn’t help but put me in mind of Vietnam and other more recent conflicts. In whatever period in history yo choose to see it, it passionately reminds us that the stars and stripes came at the expense of too much precious blood.
Charity Means showed off a voice nearly as powerful and expressive, and her highlights were in “I’m Not Afraid of Anything” and an act 2 duet with Paul Stiller. Mr. Stiller was also a strong and sure singer, and his pensive, uneasy physicality suited the darker character he seemed to inhabit. Devin Jewrell Holley brought a soft and soulful tone to his singing, though I wish there had been just a tad more projection in his delivery. His strongest moment was “King of the World”, a boisterous, crowd-pleasing number.
I think singers do better with live music, and the production boasted a handy second quartet of players: Johannes Visser on piano, Brittany Franks on drums, Donnie Arbuckle on percussion, and Ben Moser on bass. Kim Stover Hartz was Music Director, a position perhaps even more crucial with material like this.
Songs for A New World is an unusual show that doesn’t fit easily into a category except it is solid entertainment, an all-singing evening at the theatre that might just encourage the audience to think while they hum the songs on the drive home.
Songs for A New World
September 25-29 @ 7:30 PM
Mind’s Eye Theatre Company
The Bard’s Town
1801 Bardstown Road
Louisville, KY 40205
Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at Louisville Visual Art during the days, where he is Managing Editor of their Artebella blog, and host of LVA’s Artebella On The Radio on WXOX-FM 97.1/ ARTxFM.com. But spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music and visual arts. His work has appeared in Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for Arts-Louisville.com.