Hardly a conventional musical, The Tony Award-winning Songs for a New World* is thematic. It doesn’t follow a linear narrative. Dating from 1995, with music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown, it is about life changing moments and navigating uncertainty. The cast represents passengers on a crowded ship en route to a new land. Traditionally, the show is performed by only four singers. But, to its credit, this time Soundworks Productions has chosen to explore the storytelling with a diverse company of 14.
In character, all are dealing with harsh realities, with hopes, dreams and fears, making pivotal choices and finding strength in adversity. With two 45-minute acts, each of the 17 songs in the repertoire tells a story. They are personal, at times dramatic tales, relationship frustrations and life’s challenges amongst them. Some are easier to discern than others and some spoke to me more than others.
There is no one musical style, with influences from jazz, gospel, pop, funk and hip hop apparent. The song cycle ranges from poignant ballads to stirring anthems. I cannot fault the performances nor the execution, which was outstanding. The cast has stellar singing voices. All have the opportunity to shine … to soar, individually and collectively. They don’t hold back and the show benefits enormously because of their vocal dexterity and strength.
At various times they also dance. In fact, the piece has been beautifully choreographed by Benjamin Cure. The fluidity of movement is a feature. So, too, the evocative set and lighting design by Harry Gill and Sidney Younger respectively. That is not to overlook the costuming or the sound design by Thanu Moulton.
The set consists of a large wooden table on wheels and a representation of the masts of a ship, with sheets for sails. There are more sheets overhead. A long, thick rope is a noteworthy prop, while one song is accompanied by silhouettes. And then there are more than three dozen pendants lights hanging from the ceiling at varying heights, which make quite a statement. The artistes are all dressed in largely muted tones of white, taupe and brown.
An accomplished nine-piece band is situated at the back right of the stage. It is led by conductor Mark Bradley, who is also co-musical director, alongside Benjamin Samuel. Director Lauren McKinnon and producer Benjamin Samuel have tapped into musical expression unlike that which is prevalent in most shows. The result is inspiring. Songs for a New World is playing at Chapel Off Chapel until 15th October, 2023.
* It won the Tony Award for Best Original Score.
Other reviews you might enjoy:
- Parade (Chapel Off Chapel) – musical theatre review
- Don’t Go (Chapel Off Chapel) – dance review
- Urinetown: The Musical (Chapel Off Chapel) – theatre review
Alex First is a Melbourne based journalist and communications specialist. He contributes to The Blurb on film and theatre.