Songs for a New World

Songs for a New World
Music and Lyrics by Jason Robert Brown. Directed by Luke Joslin. Musical direction by Geoffrey Castles. Blue Saint Productions. Chapel off Chapel. June 2nd- 12th, 2016

It’s hard to believe that it is 21 years since Jason Robert Brown first made his mark as a composer of Musical Theatre. Indeed, this song cycle – with it’s abstract structure – really didn’t give us a clue that Parade, The Last Five Years, 13 and The Bridges of Madison County were still ahead of him.

The problem with song cycles is that it’s usually difficult to find a way to tell an overarching story. That is, until Blue Saint and Director Luke Joslin decided to make “Songs” a gift to all of us. Brown describes the show thus -"It's about one moment. It's about hitting the wall and having to make a choice, or take a stand, or turn around and go back" - and that’s certainly true, but Joslin’s vision makes it about more than that. He finds a way to make the over-arching theme resonate through all time and all circumstances, so that each song, each vignette, becomes, with startling clarity, part of the story of us all. There was never any sense of “What’s going on?” which some other productions are stymied by, and the result is something that is now more Musical than Revue, with a strong sense of how any country (though in this case it’s America) is elevated by the lowliest of its citizens.

Part of the praise for realising Joslin’s vision must go to Jacob Battista, whose design is as close to perfect as one could ever hope for in terms of atmosphere, illusion, and fitting the space. The multi-levelled deck of a Spanish sailing ship in 1492, with old trunks and boxes containing everything that is needed for the storytelling to come, is simply brilliant; and when a trunk is upended to become a cross; a grave marker above the American flag we have seen being sewn, past, present and future conjoin to make us all part of that journey. The little bits of graffiti painted on the boat, seemingly inconsequential, turn out to be signposts to the people we meet who share their stories. It’s all beautifully realised and very classy.

In two short years Josh Robson and Damien Bermingham, the creative producers at Blue Saint, have proven their commitment to excellence, to substance over style (although there is plenty of the latter), to truth over mere theatricality. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the casting here. Four extraordinary vocal talents and three marvellous musicians, coupled with extraordinary sound design by Kelvin Jedye and exquisite lighting by Peter Amesbury, combine to make the hackles on our neck stand up on more than one occasion. John O’Hara, one of our finest Musical Theatre talents, arguably has the pick of the songs, but one could argue that any song he sings instantly becomes “the pick”. His pitch is perfect, his range is astonishing and he can belt with a real sense of swing, or evoke tears with pain and emotion. His powerful exploration of “King of The World” is breath-taking, and I defy anyone not to choke up at “Flying Home.” Then there’s “The Steam Train” – a ballsy number about relationships, performed with an exciting “new” talent, Linden Furnell. O’Hara brings not just amazing singing but terrific acting to the multiple incarnations of Man 1.

Natalie O’Donnell (Woman 2) enforces what we always knew about her. She is a voice and a presence to be reckoned with, but also gave us glimpses of a comic talent we had not suspected in “Just One Step” and “Surabaya-Santa”, which made us laugh out loud. But there were tears, too, at her beautiful rendition of the poignant “Stars and The Moon” (surely Brown’s loveliest ballad?) and “The Flagmaker 1775”. Hers is a very special voice and a rare talent.

This the first time I have seen Linden Furnell, who has been making a name for himself in Singapore, but I really hope it won’t be the last. I’ve worried somewhat that our performing arts colleges are churning out assembly line performers (wonderfully talented, but all pretty much the same. There is nothing assembly line about Furnell - even his energy is fresh and dynamic and his voice has the texture of the great crooners of the 1950s. His interpretation of “She Cries” in particular was just stunning. Teagan Wouters completes the quartet and shows in every number why she is so highly sought after, but she’s especially impressive in “I’m not afraid of anything”.

This perfect blend of voices would be incomplete without the superb piano playing and Musical Direction of Geoff Castles, who embraces every nuance in Brown’s music. With Anthony Chircop on Bass and Tom Doublier on drums, the trio easily traverses the bar of excellence that the whole production is governed by.

This isn’t an easy show with memorable tunes and a book that goes in one ear and out the other. It’s a show that asks you to open yourselves, to explore what is good  - and bad - about humanity, including yourself. Make the choice, take the stand, enrich your life. See it.

Coral Drouyn

Photographer: Ben Fon.

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