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Sunday, May 19, 2024

Theatre review: Songs for a New World struggles with its musical imperative

Re-imagined production features a veritable rainbow of nationalities

In Songs for a New World it really is all about the music. With a few exceptions, the cast of the Fabulist Theatre production currently on stage at the PAL Studio Theatre struggles with this imperative.

Not a musical in the traditional sense, in what is usually referred to as a song cycle, composer Jason Robert Brown describes Songs for a New World as being “about one moment. It’s about hitting the wall and having to make a choice, or take a stand, or turn around and go back.”

In a more conventional production, each of the show’s sixteen songs are performed as self-contained pieces. In what producers of the Fabulist Theatre production call their re-imagined version, individuality gives way to an attempt at linking the songs through a refugee/immigrant lens. While certainly timely, the attempt at interconnectivity beyond Brown’s usually broader theme is hit-and-miss.

While songs like “On the Deck” and “Hear My Song” work within this tighter thematic exploration, there are great swaths of songs that are simply impossible to shoehorn. Attempting to justify songs like the ridiculously funny “Just One Step” and “Surabaya Santa” into the refugee or immigrant experience is all but impossible.

In one stark attempt, directors Damon Jang and Mary Littlejohn combine “I’m Not Afraid of Anything” with the experience of a child soldier in Somalia. The end result is both song and this real-world tragedy are diminished. Originally meant to be a reflection on how people in one women’s life have held her back, it takes on a more bizarre meaning when sung by a young girl in fatigues and a rifle slung over her shoulder.

Other connections to this new theme are tenuous at best. An attempt to weave the life and death of a young female soldier among a number of songs was interesting, but was initially confusing.

A veritable rainbow of nationalities, the diversity Jang and Littlejohn have assembled on the PAL Studio stage is laudable.

Originally written for two men and two women, in this production the cast has been expanded to fourteen. A veritable rainbow of nationalities, the diversity Jang and Littlejohn have assembled on the PAL Studio stage is laudable. It is also one of the more powerful connections to this show’s refugee/immigrant theme.

Largely a mix of community and pre-professional players, the abilities of this cast are as diverse as their ethnicities. While some struggle with Brown’s sometimes complex music, there are a few standouts.

Frankie Cottrell, Allyson Fournier, Aerhyn Lau, Maria Herrera, Kate MacColl, and Cheryl Mullen all do great work with their music and the necessary emotional connection to it.  They are helped immensely by the talented duo of musical director Angus Kellett on piano, and Will Friesen on drums.

There are some issues with sightlines in the intimate PAL Studio Theatre, especially when Jang and Littlejohn place their actors on the stage floor. Doing double-duty as choreographer, Jang’s movement are repetitive, largely consisting of moving actors in circles. Paula Viitanen’s surprisingly and perpetually dark lighting design is exacerbated at times by cast members who don’t always find their light.

With its complex songs and a fragile connection between them, Songs for a New World is not an easy show. While a bold and perhaps risky move as the first outing from Fabulist Theatre, it is not entirely successful. It will be interesting to see what direction this team next heads.

Songs for a New World with music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown. A Fabulist Theatre production on stage at the PAL Studio Theatre (581 Cardero Street, Vancouver) until April 1. Tickets are available online at Brown Paper Tickets.

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