Metropolitan Youth Theatre, an entirely student-run theatre company based in Lorton, Virginia, showcased major young adult talents of the DC Metro area with their compelling production of Jason Robert Brown’s Songs for a New World, directed by Chad Vann with Assistant Director Usman Ishaq and produced by Sam Cornbrooks, with musical direction by James Woods.
Songs for a New World, which premiered Off-Broadway in 1995, exemplifies the more free-form, genre-crossing modern musical theatre that we see so often today with its unique blend of pop, jazz, and gospel music and its loose narrative structure. It is often referred to as a “song cycle” for its lack of conformity to the structure of traditional musicals: each of the four performers, referred to as Men and Women #1 and #2, would cycle through songs from the perspectives of non-recurring characters, ranging from a prisoner to a woman standing on a metaphorical ledge quarreling with her husband to a teenager from a broken home and community. Though the song cycle has no central plot, it finds cohesion in that each character is faced with an uncertain future and choices regarding how to shape it.
The show’s focus on music over narrative and simple staging gave the production the feel of a staged musical theatre concert. Actors were dressed uniformly in simple yet elegant maroon tops, grey pants or leggings, and black shoes. The simple set consisted of a central pedestal with three white, sail-like screen columns upstage and an LED-starscape backdrop, with arcs of rope hanging from the ceiling.
It felt entirely fitting that these pieces were performed by young adults, who truly do find themselves on the verge of a “New World” of adulthood and independence with decisions shaping the rest of their lives on their hands, inspiring hope, excitement, trepidation, and dread, often in equal parts. Above all else, such visceral feelings of anticipation for a new chapter of life resonated evocatively through the music in this production.
The cast of Metropolitan Youth Theatre’s production took on the complex score and its exceptionally challenging vocal tracks to great success under the leadership of Music Director James Woods. Though singers performed each difficult song with technical accuracy, they occasionally had to fight to sing over the three piece pit due to slight imbalances in sound mixing. That being said, the ensemble blend in this production was by and large a triumph, and Brown’s score was given plenty of room to soar.
Emmeline Jones (Woman #1) carried herself with poise and a strong presence that gave songs like the wistfully crooned and touching “I’m Not Afraid of Anything” a distinctive polish.
Jordan Sledd (Man#1) provided an impressive upper belt that sent exultant group numbers such as the gospel-infused “Flying Home” to fantastic heights.
Hank Von Kolnitz (Man #2) displayed an impressive range, charming the audience with his comedic flair and rich voice as an exasperated lover in “She Cries” while finding the delicate nuances in numbers like the tender ballad “I’d Give It All For You.”
Finally, Madyson Hanton (Woman #2) expressed profound emotion with her powerful mix and velvet falsetto in numbers such as the engaging storytelling ballad “Stars and the Moon” and the poignant “The Flagmaker, 1775,” sung from the perspective of the mother of Revolutionary War Soldiers. Her most memorable performance, however, was found in the standout “Surabaya-Santa,” a hilariously bombastic kiss-off to Santa Claus sung from the perspective of his wife.
Though individual performances were strong, the true beauty and power in the production was found in ensemble numbers, such as standout “On the Deck of a Spanish Sailing Ship,” in which impassioned pleas for mercy in the face of a seemingly bleak future found their voice in a belted, chill-inducing four part harmony. Such climactic moments throughout the cycle packed strong emotional punches.
Metropolitan Youth Theatre’s production of Songs for a New World stands as another solid showing from the up-and-coming theatre company.
Running Time: 90 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission.
Meet the Cast of ‘Songs for a New World’: Part 1: Jordan Sledd.
Meet the Cast of ‘Songs for a New World’: Part 2: Madyson Hanton (Woman #2).