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Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Review: Songs For A New World

Talented Cast is worlds ahead of Brown's lyrics
by Rebecca Ugolini
Musical theatre has risen greatly in popularity in mainstream entertainment lately, and it’s no wonder viewers raised on Disney’s song-filled productions and sing-song holiday staples like The Grinch Who Stole Christmas can’t help but find something comforting and nostalgic in the show-tunes of Wicked and Glee. 
Riding that wave, the McGill Players Theatre’s latest billing, an interpretation of Jason Robert Brown’s 1995 musical theatre review/ song cycle Songs For A New World directed by Natalie Gershtein, uses smart, minimalistic staging, a fantastic three-piece band, and the voices of its talented and varied cast to put on a production which far outclasses Brown’s often cloying and cringe-worthy lyrics.
Songs For a New World is best described as being character-driven rather than plot-driven, as it calls upon its actors to embody several different, sometimes recurring roles as the show progresses. Chris Barillaro acts as a true Broadway lead, putting his lively vocals to good use as he embodies a broken but brave Columbus as his weary crew seeks out a ‘new world’. Shannon Hamilton’s clear and refined voice gracefully conveys the sadness of her songs as a young girl suffering from unrequited love and a woman struggling with infertility. Dane Stewart proves he is perhaps the most vocally-versatile singer in the show as he showcases the highs and lows of his range while embodying a love-struck college student and a man struggling with his unpredictable lover. Phae Nowak is most delightful in humorous roles, such as her saucy embodiment of the neglected Mrs. Claus, in which her otherwise mellow and womanly voice finds new life as a comedic instrument, although her more serious interpretation of the mother of an at-war soldier is equally of note.

Ultimately, the Players Theatre cast and crew deliver a performance which will delight and impress even those normally averse to musical theatre, but the quality of their voices and acting, combined with the excellent production values of the lighting and band, call for a script with more believable introspection and less overt camp than what Brown offers.
Songs for a New World May 2-5 Written by Jason Robert Brown. Directed by Natalie Gershtein. Wednesday-Saturtday, 8pm. $12 / $10 students and seniors. McGill’s Players’ Theatre 3480 MacTavish, 3rd flr.


  1. Are you familiar with Jason Robert Brown's other work? This song cycle, while some characters recur, is a series of vignettes, like short stories. Where were you looking for "believable introspection"? Is that not the job of the performer?

  2. Hi! Thanks for your interest in my review.

    I understand the concept of the song cycle, but I don't see the link you draw between my desire for believable introspection and the song cycle which Brown uses.

    In several cases, I found that the lyrics to the songs were predictable, boring, and didn't move character development along in a serious enough way to justify the often difficult themes the songs addressed. I don't think that using a shorter rather than a longer 'frame' for storytelling is an excuse for any of that. A short story by a good writer can convey just as convincing of a moment of development as can a whole novel, and I believe the same thing is possible in song, and certainly in theatre. Brown seems to assert that this work is all 'about one moment', but I often found that those moments fell flat because I either didn't care about the characters being portrayed or was underwhelmed by the lyrics.

    Because of the dynamic and enthusiastic performances I witnessed that night, I attribute the dissatisfaction I felt with Songs to the script, since I cringed and found myself asking for more from the words, not the wonderful singers. Of course, performers do play a part in creating believable characters, but they cannot shoulder the entire burden.

    I understand that you disagree with my review, but I stand by what I have written here, having considered the work carefully before writing, and having read other reviews of Brown's piece in general which run along the lines of my objections. ]

    If you would like to discuss the work in greater detail, I am also open to that. Were you present for the McGill Players' Theatre presentation of Songs for a New World?

    Again, thank you for your comments. I always welcome feedback on my reviews.

    -Rebecca Ugolini


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