Fifty-two instrumentalists (prepared and rehearsed by Musical Director Kristofer Sanz, and joined by professional guest mentors) and thirty-five vocalists (prepared and rehearsed by Vocal Director Maureen Codelka and Artistic Director Rolando Sanz) from thirty-five different high schools from the DC Metro area filled Winston Churchill High School’s Bish Auditorium with a glorious performance of Jason Robert Brown’s popular song cycle Songs for a New World by Young Artists of America. Joining them as conductor (and sometimes accompanist) was Composer/Lyricist Jason Robert Brown himself, with Adam Michael Kaufman serving as Guest Pianist. Local artists Rachelle Fleming, Tracy Lynn Olivera, Michael J. Mainwaring, and Nova Y. Payton also performed.
Jason Robert Brown explained to the audience that Songs for a New World was produced Off-Broadway in 1995 and lasted for only 28 performances at the WPA Theatre. Young artists have fallen in love with it because the show means a lot to them. “The show is about people who come up against obstacles, and how they are going to get through them, or if they are going to run away from them. Nothing makes me happier than being with young artists on this journey and I wanted to be part of that journey tonight.”
There were many wonderful performances tonight. Alex Stone’s gorgeous and expressive tenor rang out during “She Cries.’ Kathryn Bailey sang a heartwarming “I’m Not Afraid,” while Isabell Udell’s delivered an enthusiastic “Stars & the Moon.” Some beautiful harmonies were heard by Eitan Mazia and Maya Eaglin on ‘The World Was Dancing,” while Stone and Mazia hit new vocal heights with their stupendous performance of ‘Flying Home,” that brought loud cheers from the audience and a nod of approval from Conductor Brown.
Sophia Anastasi’s emotional and heartwarming performance of “Christmas Lullaby” was one of my personal favorites of the evening. But what moved me the most was watching and listening to these gifted young singers perform in the group sequences: ‘The New World’ and “On the Deck of a Spanish Sailing Ship.” The beautiful blending of their voices and the passion and dedication they brought to their performances was so admirable. Jason Robert Brown’s music is challenging and beautiful and these musicians and singers grabbed the challenge and delivered a winning performance.
Guest Artist Rachelle Fleming was hysterical and simultaneously obnoxious as a ledge-walking desperate housewife singing “Just One Step,” and Tracy Lynn Olivera had the audience roaring as a lonely and frustrated Mrs. Claus singing “Surabaya Santa.” Nova Y. Payton’s heart-wrenching ‘The Flagmaker’ was spine-tingling, while YAA Alumnus Michael J. Mainwaring’s delivered some cool moves while performing the energetic ‘The Steam Train,’ which ended the first act.
Kudos to Lighting Designer Jason Arnold, Sound Designer Chris Alires, and Choreographers Christen Svengos and Sara Malinowski Sanz, and Props and Costume Coordinator Carmelita Watkinson for their contributions.
I am a huge fan of Jason Robert Brown’s work, but what I admire most about him is his work with young musicians and singers. I have interviewed and written about several of the young musicians and singers who performed tonight and I know that the time Jason worked with them this week inspired them to become better singers and musicians. The amount of confidence, talent, inspiration, and joy displayed on the stage tonight was a wonder to behold.
I asked my friend David Rohde, who is a Musical Director, to share his thoughts on tonight’s performance:
“Washington is mad for Jason Robert Brown, and Jason is giving it back this weekend starting with the performances of Songs for a New World produced by Young Artists of America, which he is conducting personally. But as Jason made sure to point out, he wasn’t assuming that the audience knew anything about the show, so don’t think you have to know it if you go to tomorrow afternoon’s final performance at Winston Churchill High School. If anything, the show is especially known among high school and college performers, even if Jason noted the irony that it was written in 1995 – before most of the young performers were born.
The mix of Washington and New York veterans with Washington-area star students resulted in some amazing transitions and handoffs. I’m necessarily biased because of my personal connection with one of the featured students, but the knockout duo of 18-year-old Eitan Mazia and 16-year-old Alex Stone absolutely set the audience on its ear with the heartbreaking yet eternally hopeful “Flying Home,” set up immediately after Washington’s extraordinary Nova Y. Payton, who among other things has played Effie in Signature Theatre’s Dreamgirls, sang this time as a Betsy Ross Revolutionary War character in “The Flagmaker, 1775.”
Alex, who as a 15-year-old played a demanding supporting role in the rock musical Next to Normal which I conducted a year ago for the McLean Community Players, has put an extraordinary amount of work into developing his astonishingly mature and flexible tenor voice. But even better, Alex simply commands the stage and pours out the lyrics in a way that corrals any audience member’s attention, which he demonstrated early in the show with “She Cries,” one of Jason Robert Brown’s patently layered story songs which, trust me, Alex will help you read into with his performance.
Among other wonderful performances were Kathryn Bailey with “I’m Not Afraid” (which will be sung by Gillian Han at Sunday’s performance), Maya Eaglin joining with Eitan Mazia in “The World Was Dancing,” and Alex Rothfield and Elizabeth Doerrman with “I’d Give It All For You.” Jason took a large hand in the vocal preparations for the almost Olympian musical scale of the opening of the show which is titled “The New World.” But a great deal of the advance preparation overall before Jason came to town on Wednesday came from the team of Artistic Director Rolando Sanz and Musical Director Kristofer Sanz, particularly in Kristofer’s meticulous preparation of the 52-piece (yes you read that right) orchestra, which reimagined the original four-piece orchestration of the show based on alternate orchestrations that Jason Robert Brown himself had made up since then. The orchestra’s playing was more than simply lush as is so often said of large instrumental groups; it was wonderfully balanced and completely transparent with Jason’s famously (or notoriously) tricky rhythms.
A special treat for pianists such as myself who have whiled away (or slaved away) for hours preparing the virtuoso piano parts found in all of Jason’s shows was watching Kristofer take the baton while Jason himself sat down at the piano for the wild piano part in “King of the World.” It’s almost as good a live experience as watching Billy Joel rip off some licks from Rachmaninoff piano concertos while the applause dies down from his own songs at his concerts! I salute Young Artists of America and encourage you to attend Sunday’s performance in support of these wonderful up-and-coming performers and Jason Robert Brown’s impact on musical theater in our region, and for an entertainment experience beyond measure in its own right.”
At the end of tonight’s performance Jason Robert Brown thanked all the musicians and singers for loving and performing his music. And by looking at their beaming faces during their final bows, these young artists were also elated to be part of tonight’s unforgettable journey. I am sure that each young singer or musician felt like he or she was ‘King or Queen of the World.’
Songs for a New World has one remaining performance today, Sunday, March 16, 2014 at 3:00 pm at Bish Auditorium at Winston Churchill High School -11300 Gainsborough Road, in Potomac, MD. There is a Q&A with Jason Robert Brown for students at 1:00 pm before the 3 PM performance. Tickets are $20-$35, and can be purchased here or at the door.
An Interview with Composer Jason Robert Brown on ‘Songs for a New World’ on 3/15-16 at Young Artists of America and His Cabaret “I Could Be In Love with Someone Like You” on 3/17 at Red Branch Theatre Company by Joel Markowitz.
Jason Robert Brown Conducts & Performs ‘Songs for a New World’ With Young Artists of America, Nova Y. Payton, Tracy Lynn Olivera, Michael J. Mainwaring, Rachelle Fleming, & Adam Michael Kaufman (Bios of the artists are here).
Jason Robert Brown’s website.
Young Artists of America’s website.