It’s about one moment – the moment before it all becomes clear. Jason Robert Brown succinctly sums up his own production in this line from the opening number of Songs for a New World, now playing at Spotlighters Theatre. That one moment refers to small instances and decisions which result in seismic shifts in our lives. Jumping from relatable shared experiences like break-ups and reunions to cataclysmic events such as the sinking of a ship full of immigrants, or (heaven forbid) the end of Christmas as we know it, Brown’s score covers a lot of territory very quickly. The result is a surprisingly inclusive tapestry of American experiences. While not every base is covered, Songs for a New World makes a valiant attempt to explore a diverse cast of characters and acknowledge each experience’s unique challenges while highlighting the common ground that unites us all as human beings.
An important note for any interested theatre-goer, Songs for a New World is not your traditional musical experience. The production is a song cycle rather than a fully-fledged musical, which means there isn’t much in the way of a through-line or structured plot. Instead, it is a collection of songs that revolve around a common theme: life-altering decisions. However, directors Michael Tan and Andrea Bush cleverly organize the sporadic nature of the show by setting the piece in the lobby of a hotel. The transient nature of a lobby gives credence to the juxtaposition of songs and smooths the gap between storylines for a more approachable experience. The production flows well, and Tan and Bush’s structural design minimizes distraction from the star of the show: the music.
As anyone who’s ever attempted to sing one of Brown’s compositions can tell you, this music is not for beginners. Brown is a master of launching complicated, dissonant chords at a breakneck pace, leaving musicians to cling to dear life. But when performed well, the result is energetic and enrapturing, bitterly nostalgic, or breathtakingly pristine. There are segments in this production where the cast and band find moments of true brilliance. When everything clicks, this production is better than a community production has any right to be. There were songs where I could’ve sworn Norbert Leo Butz or Shoshana Bean had made guest appearances. Each of the cast members (Erica Irving, Kristen Zwobot, Luis Matty Montes, and Andrew Worthington) find moments in their solo performances where they soar through Brown’s majestic score. Irving’s clarity of tone is an almost religious experience in “Christmas Lullaby”; Zwobot stops the show with a rendition of “Surabaya Santa” worthy of diva status; the early portions of Worthington’s “Flying Home” are tender and moving, and Montes’s “King of the World” is the most interesting and thoughtful take on the song I’ve ever seen. Unfortunately, the cast isn’t quite as cohesive as an ensemble, and some of the harmonies get the better of them, but overall the highlights far outweigh the occasional stumble.
The set (designed by Alan Zemla) was also a delightful surprise. Spotlighters is an intimate space with a unique layout, which frequently offers an additional challenge when designing sets. But Zemla creates a polished, elegant feel with wood paneling, marble floors, professional quality signage, and a creatively-devised elevator. The elements worked together to flesh out an opulent hotel lobby akin to the Waldorf Astoria or Plaza Hotel.
Songs for a New World is a difficult piece to tackle. The songs are individually splendid, but creating a cohesive production out of a handful of numbers is no easy task. Spotlighters’ unique approach elegantly simplifies the problem and creates a well-rounded story, which should be considered a monumental accomplishment in its own right. With the addition of powerhouse solo performances and beautiful vocal clarity, this production of Songs for a New World should not be missed.