SONGS FOR A NEW WORLD
Not having seen last year’s acclaimed The World Goes ‘Round, I didn’t know what to expect from Not Another Musical Co-op’s new show, especially because I hadn’t heard of composer/lyricist Jason Robert Brown. Well, what a delightful surprise. Performer Jonathan Winsby and co-director Sara-Jeanne Hosie are among my favourite local musical theatre artists so I knew the show had a good pedigree. But I wasn’t prepared for the strength of the ensemble, the quality of the song writing, and the musicianship of the band. If only the show—really a song cycle, not a play—had some kind of clear story, or even a shape.
The title, the opening numbers (in what resemble colonial costumes), the closing numbers, and some of the songs sung by Daren Herbert, a Black man, suggest an American Dream thematic: come to new land, dream ambitious dream, suffer setbacks, succeed anyway (or at least refuse to give up hope). But the theme isn’t consistent and those highly dramatic numbers are not generally the strongest songs. There’s another motif of romantic love, or personal dreams, sung in a couple of duets by Winsby and Jennifer Neumann, and in solo numbers by Neumann and Alison MacDonald. I just couldn’t find the coherence, and that made some of the second act seem redundant, more of the same. But I pretty much loved everything else.
Brown’s lyrics tell interesting Sondheimesque stories and all four voices are really strong. Neumann’s is beautiful, Winsby’s a powerful baritone, and Herbert’s a lighter, sweeter voice with bursts of dramatic falsetto. Herbert also steps out of the ensemble’s Motownish choreography (courtesy of co-directors Hosie and Shane Snow) for an impressive show of dance athleticism in “The Steam Train,” where he mimes playing basketball.
All three of my favourite numbers are sung by MacDonald. Cleverly lyrical and wryly ironic, “Just One Step” has her threatening suicide in a fight with her lover, “Stars and the Moon” has her character narrating her romantic value system, and in “Surabaya Santa” she’s Mrs. Claus telling Nick what a jerk he is. MacDonald creates vivid characters and tells each story with lovely comic gusto.
The directors struggle to make sense of Pacific Theatre’s difficult corridor configuration. With the audience on either side of the stage, arbitrary movements are often needed to turn a singer around every so often so we can see her or his face. But Snow’s lighting provides very effective contrasts.
The music is eclectic: jazz, Tin Pan Alley, hints of Springsteen. The three-piece band, with Sam Hutchinson on percussion and Hugh Macdonald on electric bass, rocks out when called for but usually lays back really nicely, allowing the singers to make the lyrics heard without any amplification. And musical director/pianist Sean Baynum is a revelation. He’s a virtuoso player with a lightning quick right hand. Even if the rest of the show weren’t so good, Baynum alone would be worth the price of admission.