‘Songs for a New World’ runs at City Center through Sat. W. 55th Street between Seventh and Sixth aves., nycitycenter.org.
At first glance, Jason Robert Brown’s 1995 revue “Songs for a New World” appears to have no plot or characters. But a closer inspection reveals it to be a complex, thematically-linked work in which each song (written in diverse styles of pop) is a one-act play (full of mystery, unpredictability and heightened drama) and four performers undergo distinct emotional journeys.
The piece is receiving an unexpectedly thrilling concert-style revival as part of the Encores! Off-Center series (which showcases noteworthy Off-Broadway musicals of the past) at City Center.
Whereas “Songs for a New World” is customarily performed in a nightclub space with limited production values, Kate Whoriskey’s (“Sweat”) elaborate features expanded orchestrations and a team of backup dancers (utilized only where their presence adds to the impact of the songs).
Shoshana Bean (“Wicked”), Colin Donnell (“Anything Goes”), Solea Pfeiffer (national tour of “Hamilton”) and Mykal Kilgore (“Motown”) provide powerhouse vocals coupled with great acting choices (including Bean’s comic flourishes, Donnell’s beat up bitterness, Pfeiffer’s soft romanticism and Kilgore’s all-out soulfulness).
“Songs for a New World” has a well-known creation story. Brown, young and new to New York, met director Daisy Prince (daughter of Hal Prince) and they teamed up to turn his songs into a show linked around the notion of people being faced with scary, unexpected challenges and forced to make life-altering decisions that will lead to a “new world.”
In addition to difficult romantic and family relationships, the songs involve or invoke Christopher Columbus, Mrs. Clause, the Virgin Mary, Betsy Ross, a rich housewife and mother threatening to jump from her balcony due to a lack of attention, a poor youth with dreams of stardom, and a persecuted civil rights leader.
Although the original Off-Broadway (starring Billy Porter, Andréa Burns, Jessica Molaskey and Brooks Ashmanskas) only received a short run, the cast album became a prized possession for many, leading to numerous college productions and launching Brown’s career as one of today’s most innovative writers of contemporary musical theater. It is hard to imagine there being a “Hamilton” or “Dear Evan Hansen” without Brown’s influence.