Youthful cast brings freshness and talent to ‘Songs for a New World’

Reviewed by George Basler

Some of my favorite old-time movies growing up were the Judy Garland /Mickey Rooney movie musicals. They all had pretty much the same plot that ended with Mickey and Judy gathering a bunch of willing young people and intoning “let’s put on a show,” or words to that effect.

Much the same atmosphere surrounds the Singers Performers Actors Repertory Ensemble’s production of Songs for a New World being staged this weekend at North Pointe Church in Hillcrest.

SPARE is a new addition to the local arts scene. The group was organized last summer to give local college and high school students who love performing another outlet for their passion. While some members of the company have picked theater or music majors, others are planning careers from journalism to nutrition.

Like Mickey and Judy, the cast’s enthusiasm was refreshingly displayed at Friday’s opening night (Jan. 10).

But more than enthusiasm was on display. SPARE’s production was a first-rate work as the 13 cast members met the challenge of the demanding score and lyrics with intelligence and emotion.

Songs for a New World by composer/lyricist Jason Robert Brown is not a book musical in the traditional sense. Instead, it’s a self-described “song cycle” that stitches together a group of solo songs that portray characters facing “a new world” of self-discovery, regret, determination and hope.

Whether Brown’s concept fits together as a cohesive whole is debatable, but the show features a series of skillful songs by the creator who has garnered considerable attention as one of Broadway’s most promising new composers.

While Brown’s lyrical style has been compared to that of Stephen Sondheim, I find the music much warmer emotionally than Sondheim’s sometimes chilly work. Brown also has a gift for melody that balances his often complex lyrics.

The songs range from the humorous and satirical to the deeply serious. Some even touch on issues of spirituality and religious faith in a fresh, non-clichéd way. In an age marked by deep cynicism, this is striking and almost revolutionary!

The original off-Broadway production featured just four performers. SPARE, by contrast, features a much larger cast, a conscious decision to give more people a chance to perform and maintain “a sense of family” in the company, director Catherine Carter said.

That reason aside, the decision is a good one artistically. Not only did the larger cast add punch to the ensemble numbers, but having cast members perform individual numbers means each can be seen as a self-contained story. To me that makes artistic sense.

At the same time, having young people perform sons of love, longing and hope adds a special poignancy to the show. That’s especially the case in the last two numbers. “Flying Home” about a soldier killed in war is sung beautifully by Patrick Tombs and the cast. “Hear My Song” is about looking toward to the future with trust and hope, despite the unknown that lies ahead.

All the cast members deserve applause for performances that were consistently engaging and, at times, deeply moving. Besides Tombs, the cast featured Marisa Valent, Erin Donovan, Kristen Carter, Geoffrey Starks, Evan Walley, Morgan Allen, Dave Klodowski (who played in the pit orchestra), Darius Fuller, Tony DeLousia, Samantha Heatherman, Jameson Chambers and Caileen Harvey.

Highlights for me included Heatherman’s  hilarious channeling of Marlene Dietrich in “Surabaya Santa” in which a lonely Mrs. Claus berates Santa for leaving her alone on Christmas Eve. In “Just One Step,” Donovan is suitably neurotic as a wife threatening suicide over her philandering husband.

On a more serious side, Valent gives a compelling performance on “Christmas Lullaby” as the character contemplates faith and motherhood.

Carter and DeLousia have two fine duets as a couple who reunite after periods of self-discovery. Special mention goes to Allen for her performance of “Stars and the Moon” (for me, the best song in the show) about a woman looking back with regret at missed opportunities and lost love.

One thing I found especially noteworthy was that the cast sang without the aid of microphones and yet could be heard clearly over a five-person pit orchestra.

The direction by Carter and choreography by Keenan Taylor were first rate, as was the accompaniment by the pit orchestra directed musical director Michael Lewis. Besides Lewis and Klodowski, the orchestra featured Heather Pandich, Max Danser and Caitlin Mellan.

SPARE’s next production is The Drowsy Chaperone, set for July 11-13. I’ve already penciled it in on the calendar.

Regretfully, Songs for a New World is a one-weekend-only production. The second and final performance is at 7:30 p.m. today (Jan 11) at North Pointe Church, 126 E. Service Highway, Hillcrest. Tickets are $10 ($8 for students and seniors). Call the box office at 727-4049.

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2 Responses to "Youthful cast brings freshness and talent to ‘Songs for a New World’"

  1. William McAvoy

    I am all for the Judy and Mickey aspect of SPARE and think it’s great, but when all is said and done it just seems like kids doing kid-quality work. Enthusiasm only takes shows so far.

    I feel like the complex music of Jason Robert Brown was a little much for some of the performers. They would have been much better off keeping it with a cast of four like it is intended for. If you want to feature everyone, do a show where there are more parts.

    The kids are mostly decent singers but seemed to me acting was not a major focus. This is a show about those moments in life when everything seems perfect and then suddenly disaster strikes and becomes about surviving those moments. It’s about the way we regroup and figure out how to survive in a “new world.” These aren’t just a bunch of pretty songs thrown together. And I feel like that was lost by the majority of the singers.

    In the end it was a high school performance done outside of school. I saw Once Upon A Mattress and enjoyed it, and I think this was just too complex of a work for the cast and creative team. Hopefully lighter fare like Drowsy Chaperone will be a better fit for these guys who still have a thing or two to learn about producing theater.

  2. Nagging Parent at SPARE

    I am sorry Mr. McAvoy was disappointed in the show. Having seen Once Upon a Mattress and having at least had an opportunity to read the Jan. 9 Good Times article about the company, it is surprising that he was surprised.

    SPARE is not intended to be a professional theater company. Its focus is on high school and college students who wish to continue performing but cannot fit into other programs because of scheduling. conflicts between campus life and local show timings.

    Having seen many a high school musical in the area I can say that the performance level at the SPARE shows is on a higher level. The drop-off in talent through the cast is slight when compared to the normal high school group. In addition, the vocal maturity is better as many cast members are a few years older that the high school ensembles.

    Perhaps for the summer show Mr. McAvoy could lend his talent and expertise to the company in order to help us learn to produce a better show.