UA Theatre’s final production of the season is a dazzling, emotional encapsulation of life, love and difficult choices.
“Songs for a New World” is the first musical from three-time Tony winner Jason Robert Brown. Originally performed off Broadway, it is a song cycle — a group of related songs performed together without the incorporation of dialogue — instead of a traditional musical.
Despite being an abstract collection of songs, the show exudes a sense of unity as each piece tells a complete story connected by the theme of pivotal moments. The show’s runtime of 80 minutes with no intermission perfectly captures the idea of making every moment count.
Brown had just arrived in New York at 20 years old when the musical debuted, ready to make it big. He had dozens of ideas for musicals but did not know where to start. In Brown’s own words, this show is 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.”
The cast of 12 ensemble members performed a prologue-style opening number that set the tone for the entire show. Soloist Ryan Russell essentially sang the thesis of the musical: “It’s about one moment / the moment before it all becomes clear / and in that one moment / you start to believe there’s nothing to fear.”
This performance was my first time seeing a Brown musical live, and it was the first time I could truly appreciate the beauty of his book and score. The first sound I heard was a gorgeous piano line that exuded the feeling of hope.
The ending was equally as beautiful as the introduction. The finale, “Hear My Song,” was in a lullaby style. They softly sang, “I know it’s hard / but don’t give up yet.”
Standout performers such as Ashton Franquiz, Alex Horn and Eden Wilson delivered captivating vocal and emotional performances.
Franquiz, a senior, stole the show with her sonically diverse but thematically compatible solos, “Stars and the Moon” and “Surabaya-Santa.” She flawlessly transitioned from an emotional ballad about marital regret to a nightclub-style comedic performance. In the second song, Franquiz portrayed Mrs. Claus and scornfully bid farewell to her neglectful husband Santa.
Franquiz’s versatility translates to the dance floor, as well. She choreographed the second act-opener, “The World Was Dancing.”
Wilson, a freshman, also choreographed a number in the show. “The River Won’t Flow” was a care-free ensemble number with dynamic dance performances from Horn, Reese Edwards and Alexander Ahuja.
Wilson’s vocal performance was also incredible. Her solo “The Flagmaker” was devastatingly beautiful as a mother sang about the fear of losing her husband and child to war.
The song was made sadder by the following number, in which Kailan Clay, a senior, portrayed a dead soldier. While there is no confirmed connection to Wilson’s character, the possible parallel is positively heartbreaking.
Though Horn, a senior, did not have any full-length solos, his powerful vibrato managed to shine. In addition to “The River Won’t Flow,” he was featured in the opening and closing numbers. He also sang gorgeous transitions, crooning inspiring lyrics.
Though I adored the synchronized choreography and powerful vocal performances, my favorite part of the show was definitely the acting. This cast proved traditional dialogue is not necessary to deliver a story effectively.
The costumes had a clear white and brown aesthetic, and the simplicity allowed the audience to focus more on the words rather than embellishments.
Lighting designer Austin Bomkamp’s work was straightforward but still impacted the mood, turning the stage blue during somber moments and brighter in moments of hope.
Another show highlight was the set, which immediately dazzled me when I walked into the theater. The set pieces were reminiscent of the deck of a ship with giant nets and sails, working for any scene or message the show wanted to convey. After watching the show, I made the connection that scenic designer Morgan McInnis could have meant this ship as a metaphor for a treacherous journey through the waters of life.
Some might claim this show is confusing, and I would not argue, but so is life. We seldom experience only one emotion at a time. Complications make life beautiful in the same way they make theater exciting.
Though “Songs for a New World” is a collection of songs Brown had in mind for other projects, the songs’ messages were so cohesive it felt like he had planned the interconnection his whole life. Perhaps young Brown’s fearful, hopeful subconscious impacted his writing as he pursued stardom.
The cast of this show managed to take an already incredible collection of stories and improve upon it with their talents. I recommend this show to anyone wanting to laugh, cry or anything in between.
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