In his recent interview, co-director Shane Snow half-jokingly said that he hoped for a cloudy and rainy August to help drive the audiences to Not Another Musical Co-op’s presentation of Songs for a New World (now playing at the Pacific Theatre through August 29th). But Shane, nor the rest of this very talented group, need worry as they have another summer hit on their hands that deserves an audience regardless of what the weather is doing outside.
(I should point out right from that start that due to scheduling difficulties, this review was done during one of the show’s preview nights. And while the show should be pretty much locked by this time, as was the case here, it is still a preview and subject to last minute tweaks and one more chance for the actors to rehearse.)
Considered a “song cycle” rather than a traditional musical, Songs For a New World, has the four actors (Daren Herbert, Alison MacDonald, Jennifer Neumann and Jonathan Winsby) playing multiple characters rather than single, specific roles. In addition, the show focuses on theme, in this case the moment of life-changing decisions, rather than a more structured plot. And while I may have had some initial doubts about any group being able to carry off this rather unstructured genre, those doubts quickly evaporated with this production.
From the opening number it was immediately evident that Songs For a New World not only needs very strong voices but also very strong actors as well. When you consider that each of the show’s songs are self-contained pieces, each number must be able to immediately draw in and connect the audience to each of these “new worlds” and with few exceptions, the actors here succeed.
Surprisingly, it was in the show’s ensemble numbers where the actors seemed to struggle the most, especially in the first act. It wasn’t until act two that I could finally feel these four very talented individual voices gel and by the time the final ensemble numbers the four came together in their harmonies. (I am confident that the preview performance that this review is based on will help solidify these ensemble pieces).
Individually though the four actors are successful in taking on Jason Robert Brown’s very challenging vocal arrangements and emotionally charged songs. But it was Alison MacDonald, in addition to her great voice, who within that three or four minutes she had with each of these characters found the core of the emotion that drew us in immediately and carried us right to the end of each of her scenes. Indeed even with the not unsurprising ending of “Stars and the Moon” I felt a small tear developing. The Kurt Weil inspired “Surabaya Santa” was well, inspired and “The Flagmaker, 1775” captured the creation of the American flag with such an intensity that it left us almost breathless in the end.
But while MacDonald may have been the standout here, the other three players are not left behind. Winsby’s powerful voice easily fills this small venue which was a blessing at times as the small band, which included piano, bass and percussions, had a tendency to overpower the actors. Jennifer Neumann shined in “I’m Not Afraid” and Daren Herbert’s solo parts in “Flying Home” were so strong and full of emotion, like a number of the other songs here, you wish didn’t end so quickly.
Directors Sara-Jane Hosie and Shane Snow do a great job here in bringing out the best in all four of the actors. Given the difficulties in presenting a show in a venue like Pacific Theatre, with the audience on two sides, the directing duo were wise in trying to be more linear in their staging but I must admit to feeling cheated at times when the an actor played to the other side of the house. Hosie and Snow also do double-duty here as choreographers and unfortunately this was my least favourite part of the show as I found it unfocused and confusing sometimes to distraction; the show worked best in the scenes with little choreography including “Christmas Lullaby” and even “Just One Step”.
The small three piece band led by Musical Director Sean Bayntun, who also plays piano, is excellent and makes easy work of Brown’s difficult music. Given the small venue I did find them a bit overpowering at times but overall the music matched the emotional charge of what was going on stage. I especially liked the nod to last year’s “Mister Cellophane” with Bayntun actually singing a few lines toward the end of the show.
Whether it rains or shines through August, this is definitely a show that should have no problem filling the house each night as this talented co-op has another hit on their hands.
And if you still need more convincing that this is a must-see, keep in mind that this is the last production for this particular theatre co-op. Summer just won’t be the same in 2010. Shame.
Songs for a New World
Pacific Theatre, 1440 W 12th Avenue, Vancouver
August 12 – 29, 2009
Wednesday – Saturday @ 8pm, 2pm matinees on August 22nd and 29th
Tickets $23.50 – $28.50 available at Tickets Tonight online or by calling 604.684.2787
Visit http://www.songsforanewworld.ca for more information.