Theater Review: How Uptown Players Gives Songs for a New World a New Twist

The most interesting thing about a show like Songs for a New World is the freedom of interpretation it allows its producers. Described as a song cycle rather than a revue or book musical, the show stitches together 19 stand-alone tunes by Jason Robert Brown (The Last Five Years, Parade) that focus on moments of self-discovery, realization, and determination. The original Off-Broadway staging in 1995 featured just four performers and gave each singer something of a through-line, a patchy development arc that could be read into the “character” if the audience chose to see it that way. At Uptown Players, director Coy Covington has assembled twice the amount of performers and molded the story arcs to suit an entirely different, yet arguably more compelling, end result.

For example, instead of a woman singing “I’m Not Afraid of Anything,” as is normally done, we get a man (Peter DiCesare). This makes the closing lyrics—“And David loves me/He’s afraid to tell me. David loves me/He’s afraid to trust me. He’s afraid to hold me…and he’ll always be. He’s afraid of me.”—that much more poignant. We do revisit this storyline later on with the lovely duet “I’d Give It All for You,” but not before ‘David” (Jonathan Bragg, in great voice) opens his soul with his tortured rendition of “The World Was Dancing,” which explains why he’s where and how he is.

Gender reversal is something that Uptown Players does extremely well—its Broadway Our Way, in which the performers sing songs of the opposite gender, has been going strong for 10 years. Here that approach allows different shadings to emerge from Brown’s emotionally complex tunes. Other inspired choices play against convention, such as giving the frustrated lover’s song “She Cries” to a woman and adding a gut-punch of a twist ending to “The Steam Train.” To say what exactly is revealed would ruin the effect, but it ties in perfectly with a recent history-making news event.

A key component of the show’s overall design, H. Bart McGeehon’s projections, works perfectly in moments like this. Other times, such as when snapshots are layered with an increasingly rapid pace, the images compete for attention. A happy medium is found when Covington puts his trust in his stupendous-sounding cast and allows them to simply tell their stories.

Some songs remain unconnected from a story arc, such as the cabaret pastiche “Surabaya-Santa” (sung full-out in  hilarious German accent by Sara Shelby-Martin) and a woman’s dramatic cry for attention in “Just One Step” (Laura Lites, making the suicidal wife equally crass and sympathetic). Danielle Estes isn’t called upon to do much with her silvery soprano, and the earlier romantic choices render her “Christmas Lullaby” slightly less moving than it should be.

John Campione’s songs are slightly military flavored, and his rich, commanding voice is particularly enjoyable in the prison-set “King of the World.” It feels almost like an exciting preview for and confirmation of the excellent casting of his next role, the Marxist prisoner in Uptown’s Kiss of the Spiderwoman later this summer.

Feleceia Benton and Walter Lee each display depth and range with their songs, capping off the 90-minute show with two of the strongest numbers. Benton’s “The Flagmaker,” sung as a mother who knows she can only stitch while her son lies possibly dead on a battlefield, is as arresting as it is heartbreaking. Lee, a striking figure silhouetted atop Rodney Dobbs’ scaffolding-like set, makes the following finale feel like an afterthought with his outstanding rendition of “Flying Home.” Buttressing talent this strong with choices that challenge and illuminate helps turn this interpretation of Songs for a New World into something extraordinarily memorable.