Performing Arts

Songs for a New World

Presented by Irregular Productions
Reviewed Friday 21st January 2011

Venue: State Opera Studio, 216 Marion Road, Netley
Season: 8pm Sat 22, 4pm Sun 23, 8pm Thurs 27 & Fri 28, 2pm & 8pm Sat 29 January 2011
Duration: 2hrs 15min incl interval
Tickets: adult $25/conc and groups 10+ $20
Bookings: BASS 131 241 or or or [email protected] or 0408 286 894

Watching this production you would be forgiven for having a feeling of déjà vu, or at least for thinking much of it is familiar. If you saw any performances in the Cabaret Festival, Cabaret Fringe, or go to Cabaret Live at La Bohème, then you will no doubt have heard some of the songs from this show before. Everybody in the world of cabaret seems to be tackling them. I must have heard Stars and the Moon a half dozen times last year.

The recognition factor does not stop there, though. Originality is not the strong point of composer, Jason Robert Brown’s early output, with so many references to Sondheim, Weill, Lloyd Webber, Bernstein, and snippets of barely changed thematic material from Les Miserables, West Side Story, and more. It seems that his contribution to the production at that stage in his career was heavily based on creating a pastiche of the work of the big names in musical theatre.

His primary aim, though, seemed to be to combine these musical styles and references in a way that makes it as difficult as possible for singers, with awkward keys, wide ranges that do not sit comfortably against the usual soprano, alto, tenor and baritone ranges, complicated rhythms, unusual harmonies and numerous tongue-twisting combinations of a dozen words to a crotchet.

This work is not a musical, but more closely resembles a song cycle, with a vague connecting idea. It has even been referred to as a musical revue. There is no storyline to this show. It is just a string of seemingly unrelated songs, each with its own internal narrative, although one might argue that there is possibly a stream of consciousness lurking in there somewhere, if one can be bothered looking for it. Even the repetition of the “a new world calls” fragment doesn’t really work to tie it all into a cohesive whole.

It was, of course, his first production, written at the age of 25 (he is now 40) and it only ran for a month off-Broadway in 1995, for its first outing. It showed promise, but lacked maturity. There is also an overly-sentimental feeling to most of the songs, bordering on maudlin. It is the more comical songs that tend to garner most of the audience applause.

Meg Tucker, Megan Humphries, Joel Valenti and Mark Oates take on, respectively, the soprano, alto, tenor and baritone parts with varying degrees of success. Oates is classically trained, and it shows in his ability to negotiate the complexities of the music, but, although he copes with the the difficult melodies, harmonies and ranges, he does not engage with the lyrics and so there is little characterisation, facial expression of body language. Tucker, to, had a pleasant voice and copes reasonably well with the music but, again, the acting is missing. It is also difficult to relate to her performance when she is seated on the floor and vanishes behind the heads of other members of the audience.

Humphries gets plenty of laughs from Surabaya Santa, as Mrs. Claus laments her life as a nonentity, living in the shadow of her famous husband and is now announcing that she is leaving him, with more laughs coming from her rendition of Stars and the Moon, although this is unfortunate as it is not supposed to be amusing. It is meant to be poignant, and is even cloying at times, as it is sung by a woman who forsook romance and love for financial security and stability in her marriage and who now looks back on a wasted life, as she is about to end it all by leaping to her death. Humphries has difficulties with accuracy on the difficult high notes and tends to give only the one characterisation throughout, with two accents. Valenti, although again not quite hitting the high notes securely, gives some good work, particularly as an African-American determined to escape obscurity in the ghetto.

This is a very competent cast, who try hard and have clearly put in a lot of work, but this complex material demands the most exceptional of performers in order for it to work well, and it gets the better of them.

Director, Andy Ahrens, attempts to develop some characterisations within his cast and to bring out some emotion from those characters, but it is with limited success, succeeding more in some songs than in others. Musical Director, Peter Johns, tries hard but, the moment amplification is used, all control of balance within the band, and between band and singers is lost to him and placed in the hands of the sound mixer, where clarity and definition quickly got lost along with the balance. Sue Pole’s choreography is very much along the familiar lines of minimalist movement for singers who can’t dance and sing at the same time, largely limited to promenading around the stage and forming tableaux.

Technical problems did not help. Right from the opening, the voices often disappeared below the band. This would have been bad enough if it were not for the fact that the ear-splitting accents from the drums and incessant cymbal crashes drowned both the singers and the rest of the band, too. Well into the first act, somebody finally had the good sense to turn off all amplification of the drummer, other than that which unavoidably leaked through on the microphones of the other musicians. Even though now playing acoustically, the overactive and heavy-handed drummer was still often too loud. Don’t get me wrong; I am not one of those people that have an irrational hatred of drummers. I have been playing drums myself for over four decades. I have no quarrel with his technique, either, just with his lack of musical sensibility.

The combination of the set and the lighting was a highlight of the show, with raised sections of stage and vertical strips of material separating the performers at the front from the band at the rear, visible through the gaps, the strips constantly changing colours to suit the moods of the various numbers.

The problems with this production are, in short, divided into two categories: the difficulty factor of the material, and technical issues, such as late switching of microphones, the latter of which can be remedied and, hopefully, will have been by the time that you read this.

It is a valiant effort by this group but one cannot help feeling that they have tackled something that is just a little too much for them. Perhaps a longer rehearsal period might have produced better results. There is plenty of enthusiasm and a good degree of energy at times, and aficionados of Brown’s music in the audience were clearly happy to overlook the shortcomings, enjoying the performance for what it was.

Reviewed by Barry Lenny, Arts Editor Glam Adelaide.

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