Review: Songs for a New World, St James Theatre

“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.

Running time: 90 minutes (without interval)
Booking until 8th August

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