first night

Songs for a New World

Shona Graham enjoys a series of musical micro-stories in this Jason Robert Brown song cycle.

Jason Robert Brown’s Songs for a New World is a song cycle exploring moments of decision and change that irrevocably shape the human experience, and my strong affection for the piece meant that I walked into Hatfield Chapel with high expectations. It’s safe to say that I was not disappointed, as despite some small conceptual issues, TDTC have produced a thought-provoking triumph.

From the outset it seemed that Hatfield Chapel was an apt choice of venue for the piece, lending it an interesting religious element and a sense of intimacy. Though occasionally actors’ faces were cast into shadow due to the notoriously difficult-to-light thrust staging, their proximity gave the show a sense of honesty and kept the audience constantly engaged. It would have been even better had the actors spent more time in the thrust section, as those moments were undoubtedly the most powerful. The decision to mic the cast was overall a welcome one, in spite of some understandable first night sound difficulties.

Which brings me to the music. Bloody hell, the music. The band—comprising Alex Bromwich, Issie Osborne, Gavin Jackson and Rhys Rodrigues—were utterly flawless, effortlessly switching between varying styles and complimenting each singer. The singers themselves were of the highest calibre that Durham has to offer, combining their individual strengths to form a jaw-dropping ensemble that genuinely gave me goosebumps. Becky Brookes was captivating in every song, Sam Baumal’s vocals soared as he held his own as the only male cast member, Meriel Killeen dominated the stage with her consistently powerful performance, and Saroja Lily Ratnavel stunned with her broad range of emotion. The harmonies in group numbers were breathtaking, and solo numbers were of an overwhelmingly high standard. Credit must also go to Issie Osborne, who as musical director has clearly played a large role in creating this magic.

The dancers (Rosie Dart, Mally Capstick, Lucy Nicholson, Stacey Cockram and Annabel Dickson) also performed beautifully, and were all of an extremely high standard. Nevertheless, the decision to include dance to tell a different story (as the programme stated) was an odd one, as it left the audience distracted from the storytelling woven into the songs themselves. The moments when the two interacted demonstrated the potential of the idea, but for the most part the dancing felt like a substitute for adventurous conceptual and directorial decisions. Indeed, co-directors Jenny Baker and Florence Russell made the song cycle their own through the concept that the characters remain the same but are ‘situated in different times and places’, yet this could have been taken much further through use of costume and setting. Saying this, the minimalist staging was on the whole very effective and the cast’s storytelling kept the audience constantly on board.

The level of talent in Songs for a New World is simply exceptional. The final section in particular utterly blew me away, and prompted a standing ovation from the audience. Though not daringly inventive, as a new take on a contemporary musical theatre classic, this production was hugely enjoyable. If you haven’t already bought your tickets, what are you waiting for?

16 February 2017

The views expressed in the reviews and comments on this page are those of the reviewer, and are not representative of the views of DST or Durham University.
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