Annapolis Summer Garden Theatre’s production of Songs for A New World is something different. Jason Robert Brown’s first musical, which appeared in 1995, has been described as a “song cycle,” a series of musical numbers linked by a common theme, what director Jason Harding Beall calls “the moment of choice.” With AJ Whittenberger as Choreographer, it makes for a powerfully emotional, intimate show.
Matty Montes begins the show in a dramatic way with “On the Deck of a Spanish Sailing Ship, 1492,” leading a group across the ocean to an unknown land. Fear grips his voice as he begs, “Lord, take my hand.” As the song progresses, he changes to hope and determination. He begins softly in “Flying Home,” filled with emotion, then gets louder with the music, the longing for coming home strong in his voice.
Cara Marie Pellegrino plays the comic songs perfectly. In “Just One Step” she plays a rich man’s wife out on the ledge of her high-rise, singing defiantly at her husband to pay attention to her. She carefully walks across the stage, trying not to fall off. In “Surabaya Santa” she plays a sultry Mrs. Claus, determined to leave her neglectful husband. A parody of the Kurt Weill song “Surabaya Johnny,” she begins with a German accent, then switches to an American one, remarking “I’m not even German!” In a moment of desperation, she tells Nick, “I was just joking; I’m going stir-crazy in that big house!”
Zach Husak plays a young man determined to make something of his life. He tells the audience, “You don’t know me, but you will,” full of pride when he sings of his abilities, but fierce when he speaks of his father’s violence and the fate of many boys in his class. In “King of the World” he sings with authority, demanding to be freed from his prison. Moments of doubt about his power enter his voice, though, and the song ends uncertainly.
Thea Simpson sings of the fearlessness of the young in “I’m Not Afraid of Anything,” describing her friends’ fears before proudly proclaiming that she fears nothing. Trepidation enters her voice, though, when she mentions several fears of the man she loves, coming to a surprising self-understanding. She fills “Christmas Lullaby” with lovely religious imagery, thinking of “Mother Mary.”
David Merrill brings a beautiful Irish lilt to “She Cries,” about the emotional ways women manipulate their men, whether through crying or laughing. At the end, he sits on the stage in comic exasperation. He fills “I’d Give It All for You” with passion, ending as a beautiful duet with Cara, two lovers who separate but realize they need each other.
Renae Symczak gives “Stars and the Moon” a heartfelt anguish as she recounts her different suitors, who promise her everything, but not what she thinks she wants. Of one man, she remarks with a comic zing “I’d rather have a yacht.” Regret enters her voice at the end. She fills “The Flagmaker, 1775” with grief and anguish, stitching “one more star, one more stripe” while wondering if her husband and son will survive the war.
Scenic Designer Addison Landers and Scenic Artist Jacob Cordell have created a set that works for the scene changes. A large sail, from a sailboat, is in the back center, against a backdrop of sea blue. The left backdrop is made of the same sail material. Two gray-framed doorways are in the center and right backdrop, while the doorway on the left backdrop is without a frame. A small raised platform is in the center.
Costume Designer Holly Hendrickson has created simple outfits that help reflect each character. For the opening and closing numbers, the cast wears black t-shirts, pants, and dresses. Many wear blue scarves, while David wears a blue overshirt, and Renae blue shoes. For “On the Deck of a Spanish Sailing Ship” Matty drapes his scarf like a cloak. For “Flying Home” he has a green military jacket. Cara wears a pink nightie in “Just One Step,” changing to a red fur stole and black lace in “Surabaya Santa”. In “The Steam Train” Zach wears a tight red jacket, and a white dress shirt for “King of the World.” For “The Flagmaker” Renae ties her scarf around her neck and drapes an old American flag around her knees.
Lighting Designer Ernie Morton uses the lights for great effect. The light fades at a dramatic point in “Just One Step”. In “I’d Give It All for You,” red lights shine behind the sail, while individual spotlights shine first on David, then on Cara; as they move closer to the stage, the lights come up. As “King of the World” ends, the light dims around Zach. Sound Designer Layla Frank ensures the performers’ voices come through loud and clear.
Music Director Emily L. Sergo conducts the band, onstage for this show, making sure the music blends wonderfully with the singing. Choreographer AJ Whittenberger creates lovely movements for the performers. In “The Steam Train,” the women fawn over Zach, until they walk offstage, while the other men have a stylized fight with him. In “On the Deck” the performers start on the edges of the stage, before joining Matty on the platform. In “Flying Home,” they circle Matty as he stands on the platform.
Director Jason Harding Beall does a wonderful job with this challenging musical. The performers easily navigate the stage and each other. They inhabit their different roles perfectly, hitting all the right emotional notes, and quickly changing character for each song. The show feels like an intimate cabaret, with the performers sharing deeply personal songs. It’s well worth seeing.
Running Time: Approximately 1 hour and 40 minutes, with a 15-minute intermission.