Jason Robert Brown’s tuneful, reflective and stirring 1995 Off-Broadway song cycle “Songs for a New World” receives a very commendable and engagingly intimate treatment inside Sinclair Community College’s Black Box Theatre.
This contemporary musical revue, one of the most popular of its kind, expresses an array of emotions grounded in the expectancy, wonder, vulnerability, and discovery of a single moment. In fact, Brown has stated: “It’s about hitting the wall and having to make a choice, or take a stand, or turn around and go back.” The songs are not connected, which may puzzle or polarize those in search of a traditional plot or story structure. Even so, they certainly strike a chord and stand alone with a sparkling wit, depth and romantic flair only Brown can provide. The varied numbers run an intriguing gamut from Christopher Columbus’ voyage to America (“On the Deck of a Spanish Sailing Ship, 1492”) and an act of sheer desperation (“Just One Step”) to the mysteries of love and desire (“Stars and the Moon”) and the heartache of war (“The Flagmaker, 1775”). Brown, who won Tony Awards for his marvelous scores of “Parade” and “The Bridges of Madison County,” particularly crafts his splendid, uplifting music with rhythmic and vocal complexities which have become his artistic signature. Even so, director Kimberly Borst’s appealing, lyric-driven five-member ensemble, strikingly communicating with each other and the audience on various platforms, embraces the demanding score assuredly and purposefully on the whole.
Borst, setting the revue amid the backdrop of what appears to be a new, mysterious land of possibilities attractively designed by Chris Harmon, assembles some of Sinclair’s strongest vocalists who aptly sell the story in each song aided by Rodney Veal’s expressive choreography. A.J. Breslin, outstanding last fall in “bare” and “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” endearingly connects, revealing a wonderfully soulful urgency in the aforementioned “On the Deck…” as well as the passionate pleas fueling “King of the World.” Skyler McNeely, a memorable King Arthur in “Monty Python’s Spamalot,” steps away from his musical comedy persona to display a mature, sincere tenderness in such relationship-centric numbers as “She Cries” and “I’d Give It All For You.” Anna Sheldon, another standout from “Charlie Brown Christmas,” firmly inhabits her character-driven numbers, particularly the aforementioned “Just One Step” and the humorous “Surabaya-Santa.” Vocal powerhouse Natalie Sanders, tailor-made for this show, effectively blends with her fellow actors, but dynamically steps into the spotlight with “I’m Not Afraid of Anything” and provides great warmth in “Christmas Lullaby.” André Tomlinson, seen in “bare,” is the weakest vocalist but his commitment is unmistakable. Music director Daniel Greene leads a fine, well-balanced five-piece orchestra. Brandy L. Simmons’ costumes and Pauline Humber’s sound design are also noteworthy.
Overall, Sinclair ensures “Songs for a New World” still speaks to the universal power of community, togetherness and hope. In the grand scheme of things, all of us matter and have a special song to sing.
“Songs for a New World” continues through April 11 in the Black Box Theatre, Building 2, Fourth Floor, of Sinclair Community College, 444 W. Third St., Dayton. Jennifer Smith and David Brandt serve as Swings. Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. Act One: 40 minutes; Act Two: 45 minutes. Tickets are $15 (general admission seating). For tickets or more information, call (937) 512-2808 or visit www.sinclair.edu/tickets.