SALT LAKE CITY — The University of Utah’s Department of Theater has made a fantastic choice in Jason Robert Brown’s Songs for a New World. Bordering on a musical and a musical revue, SFNW takes the audience through a menagerie of seemingly disjointed scenes/songs to create a surprisingly coherent whole.
Director David Schmidt has taken this four person show (usually performed by two men and two women) and transformed it to an ensemble show, rotating out soloists for each scene. I was leery at first, given how long I’ve waited to see a stage production of this show, and I worried that the large cast would detract from the performance. While the ensemble was overplayed at times, the overall effect was fantastic. Highlighting the vocal talents of multiple performers and giving a bit more flavor to the show.
Where the ensemble got in the way were numbers like “The Steam Train” and “The World Was Dancing.” Songs that have so much to offer in the lyrics that I found myself struggling to focus on the story being told behind the choreography. “Steam Train,” performed by Robin Auva’a, is a song for a strong dominate soloist with an attitude. When the ensemble was included here, I felt robbed of Robin’s performance. At the same time the dancers that appeared during “Dancing” made me worry that the dream sequence from Oklahoma! was coming up next.
Where the ensemble worked best was in “I’d Give it All for You” and in “Flying Home,” both times creating beautifully potent scenes. “Flying Home” (depicted below) took on a different meaning to me with Schmidt’s powerful use of the cast’s staging.
Though there’s a list of soloists that were noteworthy, my personal picks to watch for throughout the show would be Jaron Barney (“Flying Home” ), Jeff Skiba (“On the Deck of a Spanish Sailing Ship”), Preston Yates (“King of the World”) and Robin Auva’a (“The Flag Maker”). All of these singers produced startling sound and power, and made me look forward to future performances from this department.
The set and lighting were suggestive of an ancient Greek theater-style show. The set really only consisting of risers to create needed depth for a small theater, but not pull attention from the actors. The lighting balanced the sparse set with tones and colors to assist each numbers’ mood. While sometimes dominating like the ensemble with color, the lights were perfect in setting the mood during solos.
The audio suffered a bit, but overall I was impressed with how well it compensated for the presence of a pit on stage. It’s become a common occurrence among newer shows to have musicians on the same level as the actors. That being said, it’s become more important to have a meticulous audio crew to compensate. My largest rant for this show, and so many others, is that there wasn’t enough cushion between the drum set and the audience. This is why the pit was created. But with small theaters, like the U’s Studio 115, an actual pit isn’t available. So dish out for the sound barriers, theaters. It’s worth it! For the audience, sit in the back of the theater or in the corners on the side for the best sound.
For fans of Jason Robert Brown (creator of The Last Five Years) this is a must see. The music is amazing and the U has done a great job with this show. Musical theater enthusiasts, you’ll love this one. Songs for a New World is musical theater at its purest.