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You might call “Songs for a New World” Jason Robert Brown’s Robert Frost musical. You know, “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I — ” … well, I picked one.
The 1995 song cycle — the first produced show by the then-25-year-old composer/lyricist of “Parade,” “The Last Five Years,” “The Bridges of Madison County” and “Honeymoon in Vegas” — is, in Brown’s words, “about one moment. It’s about…having to make a choice or turn around and go back.”
Actually, the show, seen here in a well sung, if showboating revival by Gloucester Stage Company (through Aug. 27), is about many moments. There is no conventional book or plot trajectory, just this overarching theme that wends its way through 16 separate numbers ranging from pop-rock to jazz to gospel to funk. Back in 1995, it introduced a serious new talent to the musical-theater world — Brown has since won three Tony Awards. And to the seaside venue in Gloucester, it introduces a delicate heap of talent called Barbara Walsh, who, in addition to being a cousin of director Robert Walsh, is a seasoned Broadway vet. Back when Brown was still writing these songs, she received a Tony nomination for her virtuosic turn as Trina in the Broadway debut of “Falsettos.”
At Gloucester Stage, “Songs” boasts a talented cast of five (it was originally written for four voices) of which Walsh is first among equals, delivering a primer on how to act a musical-theater song. Of course, it helps that she has the best numbers: “Stars and the Moon,” a rueful account (popularized by Audra McDonald) by a woman who chose wealth over love and regrets it, and the lesser known but surefire “Surabaya-Santa,” in which Mrs. Claus, fed up with Christmases alone, gives her circular spouse the old heave-ho-ho. Wrapped in a red boa and lounging among the percussive four-person combo led by musical director Bethany Aiken, Walsh gives this jumpy Kurt Weill takeoff a full-court Lotte Lenya, complete with German-accented smolder.
Despite being way off Broadway, the Gloucester staging of “Songs” also showcases Broadway vets Wendy Waring and Jack Donahue, the former an adorable femme fatale (and Rockport native) who has strut the Great White Way as Swedish bombshell Ulla in “The Producers,” the latter a three-time winner of the Manhattan Association of Cabarets and Clubs’ Outstanding Male Vocalist award.
These two join on a lovely, reconciliatory duet, “I’d Give It All for You,” and shine individually as well (though big-voiced baritone Donahue does too much with his handsome face). Waring also proves her comic chops on “Just One Step,” in which a put-upon if pampered New York wife threatens to jump from a ledge high above Fifth Avenue, and iterates one of the show’s main themes about love and risk in the buoyant if also bereft “I’m Not Afraid of Anything.”
Rounding out the cast are Berklee College of Music grad Chris Pittman as Man 1 and Brandeis student Nyah Macklin as Woman 3 added to the show’s original four-person arrangement. Pittman, who sings lead on most of the gospel- and funk-inflected numbers, identifies himself on “The Steam Train” (about a teen pushing with his basketball talent at the cards stacked against him) as a “man with the moves.” And despite Sarah Hickler’s unremarkable choreography, he proves that he is. Macklin’s sweet, un-pushy soprano, most affectingly applied to the Virgin Mary’s hopeful “Christmas Lullaby,” fills the space without belting or strain.
Even in this early effort, Brown (who is also a singer, arranger and pianist) shows himself a complicated tunesmith wielding catchy rhythms and clever lyrics. A few of the songs aren’t great. “The Flagmaker, 1775,” a Betsy Ross number for the ladies, manages to be staunch and treacly at once. And without a song list in the program, it’s hard to determine context for the beseeching “On the Deck of a Spanish Sailing Ship, 1492.” Maybe this pair is meant to make Brown’s exploration of choice more timeless than merely contemporary.
A reiteration of the show’s “New World” theme near the end identifies its songs as “made for the times.” Without ostentation, Walsh has tweaked a few for ours, with allusions to racial divisiveness and harmony other than musical (though there is plenty of that among the five singers). None of this subtext turns the eclectic collection into a unified whole. But if Brown’s dots aren’t all that connectable, at Gloucester Stage they mostly shine.
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