Like a breath of fresh air, Jason Robert Brown’s Songs for a New World far exceeded my expectations of both the Fringe and Brown’s 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 said. “It’s about hitting the wall and having to make a choice, or take a stand, or turn around and go back.” Um, not really. It’s a 1995 collection of trunk songs he 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,” and they only showcase Brown’s rhythmic, pounding, jazzy, riffing piano score (played here with assured intensity by Jim Blackett and percussionist Indigo Smith). 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. Regardless of the score’s inconsistent strengths, A Cuppa Tea Theatre Company’s exuberant quartet ensures that our interest never lags.
The songs which tell a standalone story work best, and when this young company’s super-professional ethic merges with these gems, the result is uplifting and energizing magic. Scott Weston, Keith Montanez, Sherry Mandujano, and Emily Morris present terrific vocals that are youthfully unpolished; the occasional quivering rawness made me wonder if voices would be blown out by the end of the run, but this quality adds a refreshing edginess to the proceedings—this ain’t American Idol, it’s singing from the soul. Even though there could be more nuance and diaphragmatic support in the vocals, the well-rehearsed, attractive cast pulls off this vocally demanding score, making quite an impression with their beautiful blend.
Mandujano not only has the best songs, but she proves herself a distinctive actress. The evening’s highlights come courtesy of Mandujano’s rich 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 tune is a parody of Brecht’s “Surabaya Johnny”).
Given the restraints of the playing area, Christopher Maikish’s direction is quite inventive, eschewing the singer-at-a-mike phenomenon for atmospheric storytelling (the actors are pleasingly not miked); he knows when to expand the proceedings and when to plant a singer. Heidi Buehler’s simple choreography is a perfect choice for the small space, which is creatively lit by Rebecca Schoenberg.