|Jake Beaver, Adam Caniparoli, Essie Canty Bertain, Erin Zelazny, Beth|
Noelle, Jessica Jaeger, and Nicholas Jaeger
By Tina Arth and Darrell Baker
Beaverton Civic Theatre’s current production, Songs for a New World, is something of a theatrical enigma. Josh Pounders, in his director’s notes, explains that it “has been called, among other things, a musical revue, and abstract musical, and a theatrical song cycle.” None of these phrases really captures the essence of Jason Robert Brown’s powerful work of musical stagecraft.
While there is no plot, or even dialogue, the show’s sixteen songs are bound together by three unities. First, there is place – all of the songs are set in “the new world” (i.e., the Americas, and the United States in particular), starting in 1492 and continuing on to the present. Second, there is a thematic unity – most of the songs deal with periods of crisis and transition in the singers’ lives. Finally, there is a unity of intensity – almost all of the songs are infused with a pulsing energy normally found in just a small percentage of a musical’s numbers. It is this intensity that creates the show’s overwhelming strength and, ironically, its one weakness. Songs for a New World skirts the line between powerful and overpowering, and would be easier for an audience to assimilate if there were a few more gentle or lighthearted moments.
From the moment the audience enters the auditorium, it is clear that this is no ordinary musical. The stage is dominated by two keyboards and a rather comprehensive rhythm set-up, including
not only drums but also a triangle, tubular bells, a maraca – you get the picture. The backdrop is an enormous compass, painted so well that it creates a three-dimensional optical illusion. When the musicians start playing and the vocalists begin to sing the opening number, Pounders’ success at casting and music director Beth Noelle’s success at integrating vocals with instrumentation are immediately evident – the harmonies are tight and beautifully balanced with the musicians. Perhaps the keyboard players’ respect for their vocalists is enhanced by the fact that both Noelle and Tyrene Bada not only play keyboards, they sing – sometimes from behind their keyboards, sometimes as lead vocalists at center stage.
The female vocalists (Bada, Noelle, Essie Canty Bertain, Jessica Jaeger, and Erin Zelazny) have ample opportunity to shine. Zelazny clearly has the most fun – her take on the humorous “Surabaya Santa” contributes much-needed comic relief, and “I’m Not Afraid” is simply heartbreaking. Additional comedy comes from a thoroughly unlikely source – Jaeger’s “Just One Step” is kind of like a musical suicide note, but without the usual accompanying dose of depression. Perhaps the single most beautiful moment in the show is Bertain’s “Stars and the Moon.” Although it is a simple and predictable song (kind of “You Can’t Hide Your Lying Eyes” without the infidelity), she gives it a haunting lyrical quality that holds the audience completely in thrall.
The show’s men certainly carry their own weight. Jake Beaver’s commanding presence and powerful voice drive many of the ensemble numbers, his solo on “She Cries” is flawless, and a bit of stageplay between Beaver and Bada at the end of “The River Won’t Flow” is a tiny, shining jewel (literally and figuratively) in the production. While Nicholas Jaeger’s voice lacks Beaver’s depth and resonance, his physical presence and vocals project both vulnerability and asceticism. Add in athleticism when he somehow manages to pull off the jazzy “The Steam Train,” which feels like it was written based on African American stereotypes. Adam Caniparoli is more actor than singer, and he is most effective in “The World Was Dancing” where his wistful beginning quickly dissolves into cynical ennui.
An unexpected bonus is watching the musicians – especially Noelle, whose intensity on the keyboard often rivals the intensity of the vocalists. She goes well beyond mere accompaniment, and her physicality reflects and enhances the spirit of each number.
Many thanks to Josh Pounders and BCT for bringing this unusual and compelling musical to town – audiences will find it an evening well spent.
Songs for a New World runs through Saturday, May 16th at the Beaverton City Library Auditorium, 12375 SW Fifth Street, Beaverton, with performances at 7:30 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and 2:00 p.m. on Sundays.