Workshop Theatre’s latest production, Songs for a new World is a dialog-free series of songs by Jason Robert Brown. Each song transports you to a single moment in a character’s life where they have to make a decision, make a first step, or move forward in a way that will change their life forever. There’s no singular story being told, but each of the songs are meant to form a sort of story arc nonetheless. Brown says, "It's 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.”
Songs for a New World was originally intended for a four person cast. In this production, the cast has been inflated to 9, plus 4 dancers. This leads to several issues. First off, there are differing levels of vocal talent and range among the actors in this show. The actors who are capable of making their brief vignette powerful and moving stand in sharp contrast to those who are working outside of their vocal range, some of whom seem to struggle to hit the right notes. Another addition that detracted from this production [for me] was the dancers. Wayland Anderson’s choreography was beautiful, thoughtful, and well-executed, but didn’t belong in the world of this show. There is a beauty in simplicity and that is what this production needs. The blocking was visually interesting, but less would have truly been more. It’s difficult to concentrate on the character bearing their soul in front of you when you’re surrounded by visual clutter.
Don’t think I’m saying this production is without merit. There is too much talent involved in this production for that. While I don’t agree with all of the decisions he’s made here, Chad Henderson (director) has choreographed some of the most striking scene transitions I’ve seen, all in keeping with a theme of traveling across the ocean to some unknowable land. There are some amazing performances as well. Vicky Saye Henderson makes a hilarious Park Avenue matron who threatens her husband from the ledge of their penthouse apartment—deciding whether or not to jump into the crowd below (Song: “Just One Step”). With a strong voice and a powerful presence, she steps into the shoes of her many characters and takes you with her. Kendrick Marion’s determination and vigor inspires and moves from his first number ("On the Deck of a Spanish Sailing Ship, 1492.") until the very end. I would have liked to have seen and heard more from Kanika Kay Moore, whose strong soprano would have been an asset in several pieces. Andy Bell was another surprisingly underused talent.
Songs for a New World is a bold choice for Workshop, and I applaud them for choosing something this unique and difficult. Theatre shouldn’t just be about making safe bets. I eagerly look forward to the rest of their season.
-- Jillian Owens