Songs For a New World - Review

Thursday 30th July 2015 

Photo: Darren Bell. The cast of Songs For a New World

Like many British JRB fans, the original off-Broadway cast recording is very familiar, but my only reference for Songs’on stage are dodgy YouTube clips of small-town American school productions, often featuring voices ill-equipped to flatter the often tricky belts and harmonies of the show. Luckily director Adam Lenson has assembled the finest collection of musical theatre actors in town, moving them into a New York loft apartment set (complete with boxes of well-loved possessions). Finally the show looks as good as it sounds, and those (sometimes skippable) character songs are fully dressed in his production. A show which has many unanswered questions, this thoughtful production shows us it has thought about the answers, even when it cannot share them.

Without what we've come to call a back story, each character lives briefly - in full colour - through their songs, and each song is a new, miniature world. Without also a book or traditional plot, a Songs' audience craves performances that both move and entertain, maybe even educate, us. With constant rearranging of their belongings and shuffling around stark furniture set in front of bare walls, the characters' ritual unpacking of boxes seems to reflect a very human habit - the pursuit of what's right. The ever-presence of the actors in each other's stories add another dimension to these memoirs.

Photo by Darren Bell. The wonder of Cynthia Erivo

I need to start with Cynthia Erivo. The girl who made I Can’t Sing bearable brings oceans of soul to JRB’s rich score. Boy, does she know how to build a song, and her fierce presence borders on hypnotising (she could have sung the phone book and we’d all have been reduced to mush) so it’s difficult to describe the sparks that fly when she connects with a great piece of music like she does so powerfully with songs like ‘I’m Not Afraid', 'Christmas Lullaby’ and ‘I’d Give It All For You’. If you’ve not seen her in anything, get down to the St James now - she’s soon off to Broadway for The Colour Purple (alongside Jennifer Hudson) and with that voice, the Americans might not give her back.

Damian Humbley, musical stalwart, is a solid, handsome force with a stillness and subtlety that stands out. His ‘The World Was Dancing’ was simply and beautifully carried with the strength of a performer who doesn’t need to force a word. The other ‘man’  is relative new-comer Dean John-Wilson, who has a RnB tone you can’t teach, and is visibly expanding with energy and confidence by the end of the show. 'Flying Home' has everyone whooping for long enough to prove that he has something special brewing.

It seems almost obvious that Jenna Russell should twinkle in this show - with comedy character numbers and heartbreaking ballads, there’s probably no one I’d rather watch singing musical theatre than Jenna. A true actress, she inhabits every story with a witty warmth. Watching her always leaves me with the sense I’ve been chatting to a good friend over a glass of sauvignon blanc and a bowl of peanuts.    

The musical direction and just-visible live band headed by Daniel A. Weiss is brilliant, with a pounding energy and faithful 1995-esque sound bubbling to the surface with a sort of comforting nostalgia without the kitsch. There’s little not to like about the production that breathes new life into a sensational score and presents some of the very best acting voices and creative energy London can offer. I might even go again. 

Emily

See Songs For A New World at the St James Theatre until 8th August

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