Any lover of modern musical theatre, myself included, would have struggled to have avoided the writer Jason Robert Brown, and anyone who has performed or directed his work can testify to the musical and theatrical challenges that go into any performance. Harmonically complex, with real emotional depth, the song cycle Songs for a New World is a testament to these challenges, requiring multi-rolling and large vocal ranges. Unfortunately, despite really stand-out solo performances, the Brickhouse production did not always overcome these challenges.
With a minimalist cast of just four, the power of the piece rests heavily on the performers. The vocal power and strong performances from Lucia Azzi, Jodie Russell, Louise Harris and Rachel-Marie Weiss were highly commendable and ultimately they carried both the music and emotions of the piece reasonably well. Particularly impressive moments included the comic skills of Russell combined with her killer belt which really shone in two character pieces. Azzi’s authenticity captured beautifully the mixture of complex emotions in 'I’m Not Afraid', which, along with Weiss’ emotive and vocally pure rendition of 'Christmas Lullaby', was one of the most tender moments of the evening. Harris’ range was particularly impressive, with some stunning top notes in 'Flying Home', which were truly heart-wrenching.
However, the choice to cast four women in a musical written for two female and male performers was one that didn’t always work. Harmonically it left some sequences, especially the opening and ending, without the power provided by a male voice in the mix. In term of acting, this choice could have been explored much more. When tackling the male roles, it was not clear whether the actors were attempting to play as men or as women, both of which would have been an interesting choice. This lack of clarity really hindered a lot of the characterisation so badly needed when this show. This was not helped by very static staging; I appreciated the choice to keep all four performers on stage, adding to the flow of the piece, but it meant stillness was the key characteristic of the piece. Numbers such as 'The Steam Train' could have done with more deliberate movement to inject more energy and drive.
The lighting and staging did not always help the actors either. Although some well-placed spots did well at highlighting key moments, the static lighting state with very few changes meant that the audience’s attention was often drawn to secondary characters and occasionally completely failed to light the soloist. It also meant the actors had to fight to create the mood against an unchanging lighting state, rather than having the musical mood enhanced by the visual cues. Musically, there were some opening night errors that still need to be ironed out by the band, cues that were not always together and occasionally the drums actively fighting with the pianist’s tempo. With one more night this should come together better.
Overall, a commendable performance from a universally strong cast, but lacking in overall drive and strong theatrical choices that would have really brought the piece together into one whole.
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