Songs For a New World continues at the St James Theatre, London until 8 August.
Star rating: 4 stars ★ ★ ★ ★
Taking your seat in St James’ auditorium, spying the spare apartment, stacks of furniture in the corner, you get a glimpse of what the show is at its heart: a juxtaposition of symbols, with space left for the unsaid. When the lights come up, you see the pieces that ignite those parts with flame, fervour and fluidity – the cast of four walks on and sets the stage with a powerful, energetic opening. Song by song you are drawn from story to story, eased expertly by Jason Robert Brown’s brilliant and varied compositions, drawing from gospel, jazz, pop – which, even 20 years on, sound just as fresh as ever.
Any assembly of these performers (including Jenna Russell and Damian Humbley, alumni of, among a dozen other stellar credits, the Menier’s brilliant Merrily We Roll Along), should be an instant draw: and rightly so, as both give excellent performances, including Humbley’s tornadic ‘She Cries’, and Russell’s showstopping, comedy masterclass in ‘Surabaya Santa’.
Cynthia Erivo and Dean John-Wilson have also been brilliantly plucked for the mellifluous versatility and athletic power of their voices, as well as their earnest delivery of material, much of which leaves a lot to interpretation.
Each of these four give, in different ways, charisma to inevitably imperfect characters – Russell getting the lion’s share of the night’s laughs, but imbibed with the vulnerability she is known for; Erivo wielding bright and honest delivery of her songs with gorgeous placement beyond her years; John-Wilson singing rings around the material with a matchingly dexterous voice and religious innocence (a thread present throughout the entire piece); and Humbley, playing an outwardly charming, but philanderous, man, wrestling with emotion and the desire to please, not knowing what he really wants.
In fact, and uncommonly for any of Brown’s writing, it is a rare occasion that the quality of performances possibly outshines the material. Probably a much more subjective matter, but this reviewer found the occasional sparseness of dramatic context and thematic atonality to be disorienting. This turns out only to be a minor issue, though – and one tempered by the expectation set by the ‘song cycle’ admission of the piece.
Adam Lenson’s direction is thoughtful and takes the edge off some of the thematic disparity by visually tying together several of its ideas, also aided by Andrew Riley’s great, economical set design.
The band effortlessly supplies a rhythmic yet thoughtful, foot-tapping head-bopping musical current under Daniel A Weiss’ musical direction, with musicians Mark Berman, Tony Tino, Gordon Wilson and George English commanding their instruments with, borrowing a phrase, “the confidence of a million regimes”, dropping chords like a sail, steering their ships to a new world. But this readily subsides to the piece’s philosophical tentativeness and reflection, which the entire ensemble and team handles with expertise and grace. A glorious, hopeful, musically-delicious, if intangible, affair – and one befitting the St James’ ongoing commitment to a more daring type of show.