REVIEW: Songs For A New World, St James Theatre ✭✭✭✭

Songs For A New World at St James Theatre
Cynthia Erivo, Damian Humbley, Jenna Russell and Dean John-Wilson in Songs For A New World. Photo: Darren Bell

Songs For A New World
St James Theatre
23 July 2015
4 Stars
Book Online

For people of a certain age, their American musical theatre hero is Jerry Herman. For others, of a different certain age, that hero can be any one of a number of principal players: Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim, Stephen Schwartz, Adam Guetell, Jonathan Larsen, Alan Menken, Andrew Lippa, Georgia Stitt, Michael John LaChuisa, Jeanine Tesori or Tom Kitt. No doubt there are other worthy contenders too.

For those whose most impressionable years were the late 90’s, the composer who is usually ranked high, if not highest, is Jason Robert Brown.

Brown is a gifted composer, with a good ear for fine, haunting melodies which can eat into your soul, and tug on your every emotional fibre, as well as complicated and crushing harmonies which can resonate and thrill. His lyrics can be bleak, but they can also be unashamedly sentimental or brutally funny.

He has had a somewhat tense relationship with Broadway, but his last two major works, The Bridges of Madison County and Honeymoon In Vegas, were accomplished mature works; the first (Bridges) was too exquisite for the punters of Broadway who prefer The Lion King and Wicked, and the second (Honeymoon) had the misfortune to feature some leading players and a production which did not permit the material to sparkle. Still, Brown has won three Tony Awards, so on any view of it, his musical skills are advanced.

Songs For A New World was Brown’s first major show, produced off-Broadway in 1995. People have argued since then, tediously, about whether it is a musical or a revue or a song cycle or something ineffably in-between. If it matters, my view is the title gives it away – it is a song cycle.

It has never struck me as a particularly theatrical work. Some of the music is exhilarating, some engaging, some pedestrian. It is interesting to hear Brown’s thoughts and musical interests coalesce into a stream of consciousness. But, apart from a couple of numbers, it has always seemed a curiosity to me, a springboard, a marker in the sand – rather than a complex or mature work in its own right.

Now playing at the St James’ Theatre is Adam Lenson’s production of Songs For A New World. Lenson’s production does nothing to change my view.

The work is a song cycle, the true interest of which lies in its music and lyrics. Anything which serves to detract or distract from those key elements merely lessens the impact and interest of the piece.

For reasons best known to Lenson, but elaborated on, in an unenlightening kind of way, in the programme, he has chosen to stage the piece as if it were a book musical. There is a curious set, an even more curious selection of props and small furniture items, and some estimation of costumes. It seems more 70s or 80s than 90s, but pointlessly so.

The cast are required to adopt meaningful poses and move in odd patterns, placing, replacing, and removing the furniture and props in a kind of endless, almost Beckett-like, fugue of introspection and pointlessness. Quite why they are so compelled is never explained and, certainly, never clear. Nothing is added to the music by this fatuous nonsense. Indeed, almost all of the moments of excellence occur when one performer works in a tight spotlight.

What is important in this work, as in all of Brown’s work, is the interpretation and delivery of the music. And it is in this department that Lenson’s production strikes gold.

Songs For A New World at the St James Theatre
Jenna Russell in Songs For A New World. Photo: Darren Bell

In Jenna Russell, Damian Humbley and Cynthia Erivo, Lenson has assembled three of the best, most exciting performers of musical theatre in London. Each performer turns in a bravura and totally committed performance here. Just hearing these people sing Brown’s music is worth the whole experience.

Russell fares best of all. She really gets her teeth into the numbers she has, and imbues each with special energy, her faultless timing and impeccable, seductive voice. From the faux suicidal wife in “Just One Step”, through the magnificent and compellingly empathic “Stars And The Moon”, to the deliciously (and savagely) funny “Surabaya Santa”, Russell is in immaculate form. Every note is perfectly landed, every phrase impeccably delivered, and every song given intense and finally nuanced treatment. I doubt that “Just One Step” has ever been better delivered than Russell achieves here. Her poise and artful intelligence glows.

The aching lost opportunity here is that Brown did not write more songs in this piece for more than one voice. A trio for Russell, Ervio and Humbley was screamingly absent.

But the truth is that, while the piece has a frisson as a song cycle, it is more honestly an audition (by Brown) for the kind of music he is capable of writing. Every number in this piece has direct progeny in subsequent Brown works – from Parade to Honeymoon In Vegas. Here, they are in embryonic form.

Erivo, as ever, is in magnificent voice. One hopes that Broadway’s gain (she opens The Colour Purple there later this year) will not be the West End’s permanent loss. Everything she sings here glows with an intensity, a radiance, that is both captivating and intoxicating. She performs every note as if she were an Olympic athlete – fully focussed, utterly committed and world class. Her rendition of “I’m Not Afraid of Anything” was superb and her duet with Humbley, “I’d Give It All For You”, a moment of searing, soaring beauty.

Songs For A New World at the St James Theatre
Cynthia Erivo in Songs For A New World. Photo: Darren Bell

For his part, Humbley was as reliable and vocally thrilling as ever. He really does have one of those once-in-generation voices and he knows how to use it to best advantage. Brown’s song cycle does not give him particularly fabulous music to sing here, but he makes the most of every opportunity: lush, languid phrases of unerring beauty at the top or near top of his range, as well as sweet and complicated passages that evoke heartache and reflective anguish easily. It is a treat to hear him sing so well at such close quarters. Especially in “The River Won’t Flow”, but elsewhere too, Humbley was magnificent.

Dean John-Wilson completes the performing quartet. He seems personable enough, but, vocally, Brown’s material was beyond him. Dwarfed by the sheer skill and style of his fellows, he seemed utterly overwhelmed, and Lenson’s staging assisted him nought. At his best in the final number, “Flying Home”, John-Wilson showed potential but insufficient technique to keep pace with Russell, Erivo and Humbley.

In the end, though, the trouble here is Lenson’s preposterous, over-inflated vision for the piece. It would have worked much better as a stand and sing, black-tie concert, where the absolute focus was on the music. Songs For A New World will never be a “musical” because it isn’t one and Lenson’s obsession with the piece (do read the programme) will not change that.

Musical director Daniel A. Weiss does an excellent job in ensuring that the performers are properly supported by an excellent band and the clarity and sense of the work of the three established performers is a testament to his excellent musical judgment. The space at the St James Theatre proves, again, to be welcoming and musical works seem quite at home there now.

At 90 minutes, Brown’s eclectic song cycle won’t tax anyone. Lenson, who freely admits to describing Brown “as the fusion of Stephen Sondheim and Billy Joel” (and therefore has the dubious distinction of libelling three people in one phrase), does nothing to accentuate Brown’s work, but a deal to undermine it. But his meddling is not catastrophic.

Songs For A New World endures as the serious but curious piece it is; raised up by the scintillating touch of the incredible voices and stagecraft of Russell, Erivo and Humbley. Ignore Lenson, and it will be more of a delight.

Songs For A New World runs at the St James Theatre until 8 August 2015

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