note: entire contents copyright 2007 by Beverly Creasey
It was Emerson who said that “style is the mind’s voice.” In theater, as well as literature, style affects our comprehension. A case in point is the Turtle Lane Playhouse’s formal, stylized “concert opera” take on Jason Robert Brown’s SONGS FOR A NEW WORLD. The revue is a showcase of Brown’s extraordinary songs, many of which are theatrical scenes in themselves. Director Scott Brumit, whose operas are always passionately staged, here opts for a theatrical conceit which, peculiarly, works against passion. What it works for is clarity. These singers know how to annunciate every word---but as Hamlet famously said, “there’s the rub.” Now that you can examine every singe word in a phrase, without the drama, you lose the immediacy…the desperation…the urgency…the emotion.
Also working against our freewheeling comprehension of each song are the absolutely gorgeous photographic portraits created by John MacKenzie. The director is telling us, in no uncertain terms, what each song should mean to us, as if he doesn’t trust our imagination.
That said, there are a few exceptions to the “concert” constrictions. Chuck Walsh gets to show what he can do with a song---and make it look completely effortless. He scales the heavens with his shimmering falsetto and imbues each song with towering feeling. He and music director Wayne Ward turn the opening number into the pop equivalent of the “Hallelujah Chorus.”
Donald Gregorio’s playful choreography often helps cut the severity. Donna DeWitt, too, brings down the house with her sardonic, spitfire, comedic paean to Kurt Weill’s “Surabaya Johnny.” And Anne Velthouse nails (or should I say, ‘sews up’) the moving “Flagmaker, 1775.” (But where was the photograph of the AIDS quilt? Surely Brown meant these songs as metaphors.)
Richard Bento reminded me of Richard Tucker (or Carlo Bergonzi strutting the stage like a primo don), sure of his powerful instrument. Penny Hanson, too, presents the concert delivery stance and only in Act II does she relax the formality and let her guard down. Then she lets the song move through her and her voice becomes warm, frolicsome and quite lovely.
NOTE: The singers trade off songs on different evenings so you may see a different show, depending when you go.