Songs for a New World review: ‘brave’

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Songs for a New World is a song cycle written by the American composer, Jason Robert Brown. With no linear storyline, each song presents the audience with a mini-narrative. In each song, the characters must face or contemplate something challenging – be it a difficult conversation with a partner, a revelation about oneself, or coming to terms with the experience of being human. Some songs allow the performers to take a humorous approach, while others communicate devastation and sometimes, just sometimes, this production gifts the audience with the ever-elusive note of reflection.

Jason Robert Brown’s contemporary score is no walk in the park, filled with demanding harmonies and unexpected musical turns. As such a special mention must be made to Issie Osborne, whose musical direction of both band and performers is to be applauded. She displayed a musical sensitivity in bringing out the delicate moments in Brown’s score, yet showed an equal awareness of when to let the sound swell to fill the location of Hatfield Chapel. Brown is known for his intricate piano parts and on the first keyboard was certainly up to the challenge. The singers did a fabulous job with Brown’s contemporary and atypical harmonies, producing multiple moments of impressive four-part harmony.

The casting of Tone Deaf Theatre Company’s (TDTC) production made for a wonderful and varied cast. Each singer had a distinct personality, both theatrically and musically, which gave the piece an added nuance. Becky Brookes, as Woman 1, had a fresh-faced radiance that she infused into each of her numbers. Her vocal control is nothing short of phenomenal. Additionally, her effective use of straight-tone was very fitting for the contemporary genre, while her upper register added a beautiful layer to the harmonies. Sam Baumal (Man 2) seemed very comfortable in the demanding realm of Jason Robert Brown, as his voice soared without fail. Meanwhile, Meriel Killeen (Man 1) brought a grounded musicality to the piece. She had the ease and vocal dexterity of a seasoned jazz singer, which contrasted nicely with the (equally brilliant) musical-theatre sound of the other singers and made for some unique musical moments. While Killeen had some minor lapses in diction, her effortless riffs and extensive range more than made up for it. Her voice had a warmth and sultry decadence which made it a delight to listen to. Killeen’s final number was vocally exquisite, her powerful belted notes engulfing the audience in music and the power of the human voice.

Saroja Lily Ratnavel, as Woman 2, was the standout performance for me. Ratnavel demonstrated not only superb vocals, with her bright and theatrical sound, but also phenomenal storytelling. She displayed immense flexibility as an actress, ranging from neurotic New Yorker, to grieving mother, and even to an exasperated Mrs Claus in her numbers. She seemed to lead with her acting choices, making the insightful choice to match her vocals to her characters, which each demanded a different voice. Ratnavel must be applauded for her vulnerability as an actress, as she was not caught up with sounding beautiful at the price of the character. Additionally, I felt Ratnavel’s energy throughout, regardless of whether she had a solo or was even singing at all. She was invested in the piece and the other characters’ stories as much as her own. This sensitivity and attention to detail added glorious energy to the production as a whole.

However, while I appreciate wanting to include more people and art forms in their production, the production’s dancing felt quite out of place. The dancing sadly distracted from the wonderful performances happening on stage. Some of the dancers were out of time and this, coupled with complex harmonies and cacophonous musical moments, made for some chaotic and unfocused moments. I felt that the dancing was, at times, incongruous with the understated emotional notes of the singers’ performances.

has produced a brave and contemporary piece with ‘Songs for a New World’. While you may not leave the production tapping your feet or humming any of the songs, you will be challenged by a piece that shakes up the notion of traditional musical theatre. Anyone who enjoys the complexity of music and contemporary theatre will enjoy this production.

‘Songs for a New World’ will be performed in Hatfield Chapel from Thursday, 16th February until Saturday 18th February at 19:30. Book your tickets here. 

Photograph: James Yallop

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