Slow Burn Theatre’s season-opening, Broward Center-reopening production of “Songs for a New World” opens with a poignant touch that, suffice to say, is not in the script. A single ghost light, placed center stage, casts a dim glow, piercing a veil of haze to reveal these words projected on a screen behind the proscenium:
“March 12, 2020
Broadway Goes Dark”
“Songs for a New World,” the durable 1995 song cycle of sorts from writer/composer Jason Robert Brown, was supposedly conceived with a theme in mind: a moment of decision, as vocalized by four actors playing 16 separate characters. March 12 was one of those moments of decision, when Broadway and, soon afterwards, regional theaters like Slow Burn, became some of the first institutions to close their doors for what has been an exceedingly long and, for some, still ongoing intermission. For 17 months, the ghost light is all that’s been burning— until now. For theatre people, especially, the symbolism is potent.
So is the idea of a new world, a sort-of post-COVID world, in which many of Brown’s characters, confident or vulnerable, defiant or anxious, venture out to explore in each of the songs. In some ways, Brown’s overarching themes of confronting new paradigms make for the ideal return-from-a-pandemic production. For many reasons, certainly financially, this nearly set-less, four-actor show is a more prudent selection than, say, “Ragtime,” which was forced into cancelation before its opening night last March, and would have arguably been Slow Burn’s most ambitious undertaking to date.
But there’s a double-edged sword to “Songs for a New World.” For all of its benefits, there is an inherent strung-together quality to its structure, as a collection of the composer’s repurposed material, with occasional duds sprinkled among gems of pop and Broadway songcraft. Call it a song cycle if you will—a Jacques Brel revue for late 20th century angst—but it’s really a series of individual pieces grasping for a cohesive whole. It’s an approach that has left me detached in previous productions, and here, too, despite the evident talent on display, I simply wanted to feel more.*
The actors, tasked with the daunting labor of creating emotional connections with the audience without the benefit of story or context, endeavor to find the through-lines in their various characters, discovering linkages through gesture, personality and perspective. Heather Jane Rolff, while staging a stunt to capture her neglectful spouse’s attention in “Just One Step,” vocalizing the eventual hollowness of her champagne dreams in “Stars and the Moon,” or embodying an abandoned Mrs. Claus in “Surabaya-Santa,” captures these characters’ interlocked relationship troubles with big, outsized expressions, as if straining her emotional tether to its breaking point.
Darius J. Manuel has the elastic lilt of a great soul or gospel singer, which is on compelling display during “On the Deck of a Sailing Ship, 1492” and especially the exuberant standout “The Stream Train,” about an aspiring hoopster hoping his court skills will lift him from his disadvantaged upbringing. If there’s ever a great Sam Cooke revue, or somebody wants to stage “One Night in Miami” again, Manuel could fill those immortal shoes.
Cecilia Snow, on numbers like “I’m Not Afraid of Anything” and “Christmas Lullaby,” plays with a wide and infectious enthusiasm, tempered by the occasional lyrical detours into discomfort that make Brown’s best songs so dynamic to perform. I didn’t get as much consistency from Timothy Michael Quinn, whose signature piece “She Cries” hasn’t aged particularly well, and comes across, intentionally or not, as a privileged pity party.
Eric Alsford’s musical direction, conducted from his perch behind the stage, is first-rate, navigating Brown’s eclectic score—from vintage torch songs to rollicking rhythm and blues to muscular rock ‘n’ roll. In addition to directing, Patrick Fitzwater designed the set, sound and projections, all meeting Slow Burn’s standards of production quality. A series of paint-spattered steps and pillars gives the action an Anytown city vibe while offering space for the actors to play. Clifford Spulock’s lighting is as varied as the songs themselves, creating an alternately lighthearted, solemn and even divine ambience.
I just wish I could connect with the material as strongly as, for instance, Darius J. Manuel, who had to wipe tears from his eyes during closing number “Hear My Song.” Slow Burn has produced a well-crafted “Songs for a New World.” I’m still waiting for the transcendent version, the one that immerses and enraptures me, so I can finally “get” this show.*
“Songs for a New World” runs through Oct. 24 at Broward Center, 201 S.W. Fifth Ave. A negative COVID-19 test conducted within the past 72 hours, or proof of full vaccination dating back at least two weeks is required for attendance. Tickets cost $49-$65. Call 954/462-0222 or visit browardcenter.org.
* I’m not usually one for caveats, but it must be said: I’m not crazy about the mask mandate at Broward Center. I support the vaccination and testing mandate, which should be sufficient precaution to allow freedom of choice inside the building. Having attended un-mask-mandated productions this past season at Island City Stage and appreciating, for a couple of hours, the illusion of pre-COVID theatrical entertainment, I can’t help but wonder to what effect the alienation I felt during “Songs for a New World” was due to the emotional, and not just social, distancing that masks generate. It’s a two-way street: I can only imagine the effect on morale for actors to be staring at a vast sea (or, in this past Sunday’s matinee of “Songs,” an auditorium less than a quarter full, with depressed turnout being a separate but connected issue) of inscrutable faces, not detecting our engagement but for the occasional titter of muffled laughter. If this is the new world for regional theatre for the foreseeable future, I’m not crazy about it.