CD Review: SONGS FOR A NEW WORLD (2018 Encores! Off-Center Cast Recording)

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by Tony Frankel on February 5, 2019



Like a breath of fresh air, this new recording of Jason Robert Brown’s Songs for a New World far exceeded my expectations from this uneven song cycle. This is an early work from the Tony-winner for Parade and Bridges of Madison County. “It’s about one moment,” Brown once said. “It’s about hitting the wall and having to make a choice, or take a stand, or turn around and go back.” I didn’t really get that when I first saw the show, and even though director Kate Whoriskey has done her best to find some arcs among performers, it remains what it always has been — a 1995 collection of trunk songs Brown cobbled together with Harold Prince’s daughter, Daisy, which means the plot-free entertainment is only as good as the last song.

Some of them are forgettable, generic cabaret tunes from the 1980s’ Maltby & Shire school of “hitting the wall and having to make a choice,” yet they showcase Brown’s inimitable rhythmic, pounding, jazzy, riffing piano score, played here with assured intensity by pianist James Sampliner, drummer Loraine Faina, percussionist Benny Koonyevsky, and bassist Randy Landau (who played on the original cast album as well). Even when songs are derivative of the piano-bar era of lore, they can be awfully pretty, and each one is beautifully arranged with lush harmonies, the orchestrations having been updated by Brown with violins (Monica Davis, Katherine Livolsi-Landau), viola (Yuko Naito-Gotay), cello (Mairi Dorman-Phaneuf), and guitars (Michael Aarons and Hidayat Honari). Regardless of the score’s inconsistent strengths, Encores! Off-Center’s exuberant quartet ensures that our interest never lags (it ran at NY’s City Center from June 27-30, 2018).

The songs which tell a standalone story work best, and when fantastic singers interpret these gems, it results in uplifting and energizing magic. Shoshana Bean, Colin Donnell, Mykal Kilgore, and Solea Pfeiffer present blazingly great vocals that are sung from the soul; the winning cast pulls off this vocally demanding score, making quite an impression with their beautiful blend. Mr. Donnell is affable, almost like a folk singer (“She Cries”); Pfeiffer is wrenchingly soulful with ballads (“A Christmas Lullaby”); and Mr. Kilgore is powerful and wholly distinctive (“King of the World”), only occasionally resorting to that unnecessary Whitney Houston/American Idol twangy-riffing thing.

Ms. Bean not only has the best songs, but she proves herself a distinctive actress. The show’s highlights come courtesy of Bean’s rich and funny interpretations: “Just One Step” has a desperate wife threatening to jump off a ledge to garner attention; “Stars and the Moon” is a gorgeous, bittersweet narrative about a woman who chooses trinkets over love; and “Surabaya-Santa” presents Mrs. Claus as a disgruntled wife (the Weimar-era-esque tune is a parody of Weill & Brecht’s “Surabaya Johnny”).

The inclusion of transition pieces between songs has upped the running time, which is why we get 2 CDs. My only issue is that mixer Jeffrey Lesser allowed the band to be at the same volume as the singers, and there are no lyrics in the booklet.

original production photos by Joan Marcus

Songs for a New World
2018 Encores! Off-Center Cast Recording
Ghostlight Records
2 discs | 19 tracks | 84:22
released January 25, 2019
available at Amazon, iTunes and Ghostlight

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