Currently celebrating 20 years since it’s first off-Broadway outing, Songs For a New World is one of Jason Robert Brown’s finest works. His eclectic and dynamic approach to composition has made him this generation’s Sondheim and this production showcases his musical prowess in a breathtaking, exciting and powerful 90 minutes of musical theatre. While there is no specific narrative between the songs, the audience are reeled in and hooked from the opening notes right until the curtain call.
The loosely related themes of all the songs is reflected in the direction and staging, with the backdrop of a loft apartment with boxes showing someone moving in or out, and the four-person cast interacting between songs. This allows the piece to feel more fluid and connected than other productions of this show might do, and brings more to the songs and lives of the characters than what we are being shown in these musical snapshots.
What makes this show so special is that director Adam Lenson has assembled one of the strongest musical theatre casts I have ever seen. With his connections to the Menier Chocolate Factory (where three of the four cast have performed previously) and its reputation for some of London’s best revivals and new musicals, he knew exactly what he was doing in choosing these performers and, for the most part, the delivery of Jason Robert Brown’s razor sharp vocal arrangements is flawless.
Cynthia Erivo shines in everything she does. Her soulful vocals ebb between soft lilt and breathtaking belt, both ends of the spectrum being used sparingly and exactly how they were designed to be. Her vocal delivery on songs ‘I’m Not Afraid of Anything’ and ‘Christmas Lullaby’ is nothing short of perfect. Also her duet of ‘I’d Give It All For You’ with Damien Humbley gave me goosebumps. Humbley’s individual performances are equally enjoyable, his baritone vocals filling the theatre with warmth and emotion. His rendition of ‘She Cries’ was insightful and affecting.
Being a relative newcomer compared to the other performers’ vast theatre credits, Dean John-Wilson gives a smooth performance in some of the show’s most challenging vocal roles. His R’n’B vocal runs never fail to send a shiver of excitement through the audience and showstopping number ‘Flying Home’ brought the auditorium to a stunned silence with his towering vocals merging seamlessly with the ensemble’s harmonies.
Finally, Jenna Russell gives so much to her roles in each of her songs. Her vocals are spot on every time, but what really makes her irresistible is her utter engagement with her characters, and the amount of empathy she draws from her audience in whatever she does. From the pitch-perfect comedy of ‘Just One Step’ and ‘Surabaya Santa’ to the moving regret of ‘Stars and the Moon’ she just gets everything so right.
A full house and one unanimous standing ovation later, all I can say is that any and every fan of musical theatre should go and see this show. Outstanding performances from some of the West End’s finest and a score that is sure to stand the test of time.
Songs For a New World is on at St James Theatre until 8 August 2015. For more info go to the St James Theatre website. Photo by Darren Bell.