It's been twenty years since Jason Robert Brown's song cycle 'Songs For a New World' first premiered, in a then modest concert performance directed by Daisy Prince, daughter of the famed Producer/Director Hal. In this time, the piece has become a staple of community theatres, amateur groups, high schools, universities and beyond - thanks to the popularity of the score and scope for production.
Both the strength and the drawback of the piece as a whole comes from having no linear narrative - each song aims to tell an individual self contained story - be it a on the deck of a Spanish sailing ship in 1492, or in a Manhattan High Rise overlooking Park Avenue. The perspective is wide ranging, transporting the audience from different locations through multiple characters and experiences. Many productions have failed by forcing the numbers into some form of narrative sense and over-directing sections in search of a conventional structure. Here we're met with middle ground in a handsomely designed production by Andrew Riley, placing the four performers in a realistic New York apartment overlooking the Statue of Liberty.
You'd be hard pressed to find a better sung production of this show which features three of the finest musical theatre performers currently working in the UK. Cynthia Erivo is on top form throughout, keeping a vocal lid on numbers but always being firmly in control and connected to the material. Damian Humbley, who is in my mind the finest leading man in the West End, has a presence and vocal maturity that commands each song, full of warmth and experience that helps you hear his songs in a fresh and exciting way. Jenna Russell, who is blessed with the most engaging track, puts her comic chops into full gear with the show stopping 'Surabaya Santa', whilst managing to break your heart in 'Stars and the Moon'. Her careful and understated delivery of 'Just One Step' shows exactly why she is one of musical theatre's greatest assets as she juggles the pathos of the song with the exact level of comedy - getting to the core of the lyrics whilst delivering a challenging vocal effortlessly.
Dean John-Wilson holds his own in the vocally demanding Man 1 track, displaying enough riffs and vocal flexibility to keep you on your toes. At times this is a little overbearing and detracts from the sentiment of the lyrics, feeling more like a vocal exercise, but he manages to make his character the most consistent throughout, acting as a constant for the other tracks to bounce off.
There's something slightly sophomoric about the direction, which includes a great deal of middle distance staring and resting on chairs facing the back, combined with moments of interaction that are never too clear to the audience. Whilst it looked like a lot of work had gone into connecting the company to both each other and the individual pieces, much of that doesn't translate to the audience and many of the intentions and choices just don't read beyond surface level.
As a musical, I'm never convinced the whole is greater than the sum of its parts - but this production rests on the performances, and manages to engage you through sheer vocal strength. I guarantee you'll never hear a more solid vocal performance of this eclectic and pleasing score, and it's refreshingly produced in a finely drilled production.