“I saw you look at Blitzen long and lovingly
The way you used to look at me”
Like many things in real life, Jason Robert Brown’s Songs for a New World defies easy description. Not really a musical, not quite a song cycle, it’s an abstract anthology of diverse songs that circle around a similar theme of making a decision. One of his first shows to be produced and now 20 years old, it represents perhaps the purest distillation of his piano-based pop-rock stylings even as we skip between the various times, places and people woven together into the patchwork of this one emotional journey.
A show like this stands or falls by its cast but director Adam Lenson has cast it to the hilt. Fresh off the hugely successful Here Lies Love, Dean John-Wilson brings real energy; perhaps a little undersung, Damian Humbley has built up a hugely impressive musical theatre CV; Cynthia Erivo has been making waves for a while now and this is her last UK engagement before heading to Broadway to reprise her role in The Color Purple; and Jenna Russell, oh Jenna Russell, as fine an exponent of Sondheim as she is of Bart Simpson, she’s the kind of performer who illuminates the stage even with just a hint of her presence.
And so it works, bloody well. John-Wilson’s rangy muscularity belies his sensitive musicality and so whether the teenager battling the school of hard knocks or a soldier killed in action lamenting his mother, he is a sensational performer to listen to. Humbley’s everyman contributions may be more, well, humble, but no less heartfelt and Russell knocks it out of the park every single time – the Park Avenue wife trying to get her husband’s attention by dangling off the window ledge, a frustrated Mrs Claus or the glorious self-reflection of ‘Stars and the Moon’, she’s nothing less than unmissable.
Erivo perhaps suffers a little by comparison due to this wide variety. Not in the fearsome commitment to her artistry – when she sings, it can feel like time has stopped, but it is so blazingly intense, almost all of the time that it can become a little exhausting. It’s partly due to the material but also you just kind of want to tell her to breathe just a little more, when a wry smile finally cracks out late on, you finally see what potential lies in a greater variation of tone. But this is a tiny bugbear in what is a sterling piece of musical theatre, led brilliantly by Daniel A Weiss; five-strong band, that sounds good as ever even 20 years on.