By ALAN SMASON, WYES-TV Theatre Critic (“Steppin’ Out”)
It’s been a year of firsts for Summer Lyric Theatre at Tulane’s (SLT) artistic director Michael McKelvey. After a year of shutdowns and failed attempts to mount summer shows in 2020, the always inventive and superb theatrical forces he marshals (which have come together for 53 previous summers), were able to mount their first show away from the Tulane campus and their usual home on the Dixon Hall stage.
The selection of Jason Robert Brown’s Songs for a New World was another first in addition to their choice of venue as the New Orleans Jazz Museum, known to locals as the Old Mint.
In addition to mounting an outdoor show for the first time, McKelvey also opted to give the reins of director to choreographer Polanco Jones, Jr., who became the first person of color to be so selected.
In this season of firsts, Jones did not disappoint. His imaginative choreography became the hallmark to an outstanding reimagining of the review show of Brown’s early works originally directed by Daisy Prince, the daughter of renowned Broadway producer Hal Prince. At the time, the original show was produced Off-Broadway, there were just four ensemble members – two male and two female.
The SLT production doubled the cast members and the show, which ran for two consecutive weekends earlier in the month of June to overwhelming critical raves, was filmed and edited in the intervening week so as to allow viewing by hundreds of season subscribers and others unable to journey to the edge of the French Quarter. It will be available for a short window of time over their streaming platform from now through Sun., June 20 .
While the songs that became the corpus for Songs for a New World were written at different times during a five-year period when he first arrived on the New York scene, Brown’s youthful take on the world-at-large expressed a plethora of emotions for the characters found within them.
Some were hopeful and full of dignity, while others seemed cynical and frustrated. All of the speakers were given voice by Brown, a newcomer who was writing with an emotional range far beyond his years.
During this past year of theatre shutdowns and social distancing, Songs for a New World proved to be one of the most accessible and more easily mountable productions available on college campuses, according to McKelvey. When he and Jones began their plans to mount the show, there was still a degree of uncertainty about whether an indoor venue would be wise. Placed into an outdoor setting, Songs for a New World seemed to more readily fit within the constraints needed to adhere to COVID restrictions and to make patrons feel comfortable and safe.
Ushering in a new and hopeful era of inclusion, diversity and equity, Jones, a remarkable dancer in his own right, had already been tapped (pun intended) to work with the New Orleans Jazz Museum this summer and his connection to them made the use of the museum’s space on the site of the former United States Mint not only a possibility, but a reality.
With its second and third floor balconies and its exposed back patio, the museum proved to be a perfect venue to showcase Jones’ amazing, fluid choreography for all the actors. Although not produced under an Actors Equity Association contract, three of the four top singing performers – Prentiss E. Mouton, Adair Watkins and Ximone Rose – were Equity members and the other – Meredith Owens – was an Equity candidate.
The singing was remarkable, especially in an outdoor venue where, lacking walls off which to bounce the sound, the vocals might travel upward and away from the audience. The sound system, although small and lightweight, fulfilled its mission of coupling the singers to the live orchestra sequestered on the left interior portion of the second balcony and led by music director Natalie True on keyboard.
Following an opening number featuring the entire cast, Mouton, a native of Memphis, made his SLT debut with a powerful rendition of “On the Deck of a Spanish Sailing Ship,” one of the few songs Brown wrote specifically for the show before its premiere. His first act closing song of “Steam Train” was designed by Jones to capture the rhythmic movement of the male cast members as he lead everyone in collective song and dance.
Mouton’s closing number of “Flying Home” was also spectacular, evocative of a joyous gospel hymn.
Watkins, a former member of the Big Easy Boys, had his star turn in Act One’s “She Cries,” a plaintive ballad in which the restless protagonist is unable to resist his weeping woman’s tears. He and Rose enjoy a lovely duet with support from the full company at the beginning of Act Two with “The World Was Dancing.”
Rose, a veteran of Broadway (“Once on This Island” 2017 revival) and the first national touring company of “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical,” showed her fierce side in “I’m Not Afraid of Anything” and combined with Atkins on “The World Was Dancing.” Solidly on pitch, Rose mingles her expressive voice with Watkins’ powerful tenor to wonderful effect in “I’d Give It All Up for You.”
Meredith Owens, who had an outstanding turn as Ilona in 2019’s “She Loves Me,” proved to be the delight of the evening with her rendition of “Surabaya Santa,” Brown’s tongue-in-cheek takeoff of the Kurt Weill classic in which Mrs. Claus bemoans her co-dependent life. Jones’ use of rocking chairs for her and other distaff members of the cast Madison Britton and Julia Swann in “Flagmaker” was nothing less than inspired.
Owens also delivered one of the finest interpretationS of the night with her rendition of “Stars and the Moon,” a song in which a woman who is courted by two devout lovers instead opts for a disheartening marriage of convenience. The song has become a stable of cabaret performers across the world with Karen Akers, Patti LuPone and Audra McDonald having recorded notable versions. The rendition Owens delivered was in that same rarefied air and her mature voice soared into the sultry night air and left a most pleasing impression to her audience.
This production of Songs for a New World benefitted from expanded roles for native-born New Orleanians Eric Shawn and Deangelo Renard Boutté along with Britton and Swann. Like their female counterparts, Shawn and Boutté were utilized throughout the show in support and to showcase Jones’ inventive choreography, but they were able to combine their voices briefly in a short duet near the end of Act II, “Transition II.” Similarly, Britton, Swann and Rose combined in Act I’s “Transition I.”
While playing under less than optimal conditions, threatened by rain and battered by occasional blustery winds, the five-piece band led by True included a violinist, a cellist, a bassist and a drummer. They created a beautiful musical canvas upon which the extraordinary voices of the cast could be placed, although the sound design for the outdoor venue created by Thea Fogelman was challenged occasionally when having to compete with some of the other, distracting and dissonant sounds of the busy French Quarter.
Joan Long handled the assignment of properly lighting the actors and the entire backside of the museum well, while Michael Batt provided his expertise in carrying off the entire production as its technical manager.
The simple and shimmery costumes by Michelle Hathaway added accents to the dance moves employed by the company allowing the figures to cut through the summer night with color and pizzaz. The players were in constant motion, no doubt moved to their places by stage manager India Mack and her assistant LaSharron Purvis.
Songs for a New World suggests a newer, more inclusive and diverse SLT will be focusing efforts to update its mission and vision too. After a year of shutdowns and introspection, SLT was back in glorious fashion. See the live stream and determine for yourself what Jones and artistic director McKelvey were able to accomplish. The two are set to co-direct the 50th anniversary performance of Jesus Christ Superstar in July.
Thanks to the now acceptable idea of streaming borne from social distancing, SLT can present this show which richly follows in the grand tradition of what its audiences have come to know and expect.
Songs for a New World finished its run at the New Orleans Jazz Museum (Old Mint) and a filmed version is now available on SLT’s streaming platform now through Sun., June 20. The show runs about one hour and 30 minutes. To order tickets, click here.