Review: Songs for a New World (Angelwalk Theatre)

By Wayne Leung


Angelwalk Theatre presents Jason Robert Brown’s Songs for a New World at the Toronto Centre for the Arts Studio Theatre through April 23, 2011.

Angelwalk is a relatively new player on the Toronto theatre scene. Focusing on intimate musical theatre productions, this small company already punches well above its weight.

To finish off its second season, Angelwalk chose to present Songs for a New World by Jason Robert Brown. Brown is also the composer and lyricist for Parade which had its Toronto premiere earlier this year.

Songs for a New World is a musical performance but it isn’t a musical per se. Nor is it a revue of songs culled from other works. The show is a “song cycle”; a collection of stand-alone, original songs loosely related to a central theme.

In fact, the show more closely resembles a staged concert or vocal recital than a traditional musical theatre piece. The staging is modest and the show instead focuses on the craft of songwriting and showcasing amazing vocal performances.

With no linear plot, the four performers are identified in the programme simply as Man 1, Man 2, Woman 1 and Woman 2. They inhabit different personas and characterizations for each song they perform.

So what is the show about? What is the central theme that frames the musical performances? Well, it’s actually a bit abstract. Brown says the following about his show, “It’s about one moment. It’s about hitting the wall and having to make a choice, or take a stand, or turn around and go back.”

The “new world” referenced in the title is a metaphor for the many moments in our lives where we encounter hardship, tragedy, or simple twist of fate and are faced with crucial decisions.

Throughout the course of the show we meet sailors on the deck of one of Columbus’s ships sailing to America in 1492, a woman on a 57th storey ledge contemplating suicide to spite her husband, an inner-city youth who decides to make basketball his way out of the ghetto, a woman who regrets marrying for money and other characters at similar pivotal moments in their lives.

The music is very strong; my play-going buddy Marty thought the songwriting was excellent. The songs range from charming little ditties, to sweeping ballads, to big, bombastic, Broadway belt-o-ramas and the style of the music is heavily influenced by soul, jazz and gospel.

The score for the show is very vocally demanding but the four cast members are incredibly talented and deliver the songs with conviction. They sound great together on their four-part harmonies and are thrilling to watch and listen to.

Erica Peck has an amazing stage presence, her performance is vocally dazzling and she is a joy to watch. I particularly enjoyed her tender take as a first-time expectant mother in “Christmas Lullaby.”

Justin Bott has a likeability and slightly goofy charm. His duet with Erica Peck about two estranged lovers rediscovering their love for each other, “I’d Give It All For You,” makes for a touchingly beautiful moment.

Denise Oucharek shows her impeccable comedic skills in numbers like the hilarious “Surabaya Santa” where she embodies a vampy, jilted Mrs. Claus on Christmas morning but she’s also capable of pulling off a heartbreaking number like “The Flagmaker, 1775” about a mother of a young soldier killed in battle.

Stewart Adam McKensy has an impressive range and gets to show off his upper register. His rendition of the soaring anthem “Flying Home” is stirring and breathtaking.

Director Andrew Lamb’s (My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding) musical staging makes great use of the small space. He keeps the performers moving about the thrust stage making the show feel bigger than it is while never losing the sense of intimacy.

Overall, Songs for a New World is a thoroughly enjoyable evening of theatre showcasing some amazing vocal talent. If you’re a fan of musical theatre, or just music in general, I implore you not to miss this gem of a show.

Details:

  • Tickets: $25 to $45
  • By phone: 416-872-1111
  • Online: www.angelwalk.ca
  • In person: Box Office, Toronto Centre for the Arts, 5040 Yonge Street
  • Discounted Tickets: Under 30 with valid I.D. – $25 (groups of 10 or more is $22) Groups of 10 or more – $32-$38

Photo credit:

– Stewart Adam McKensy, Erica Peck, Justin Bott, Denise Oucharek – Photo by Ted Belton