Songs for a new, yet confusing world

Full Cast (Left to Right): Becca Orts, Kody Bringman, Antonio Tillman, Rebecca Flanders. Photo by Jessie Dobrzynski. Songs for a New World

Who Redhouse Arts Center

Where 201 S. West St. Syracuse

When Through September 7th

Tickets $30; $20 for members

Review by Melanie Lustig

If a show-tune “American Idol” sounds like an enjoyable evening, head over to The Redhouse Arts Center and bask in strong, belted musical numbers with limited plot and lots of emotion. If not, steer clear of Songs for a New World.

Written by Jason Robert Brown and originally produced Off-Broadway in 1995, Songs for a New World falls in an unknown category. The show is somewhere between musical theatre and revue in style with a collection of 19 musical numbers performed by nameless characters. Woman 1, Woman 2, Man 1 and Man 2 attempt to tell heart-wrenching individual stories of pivotal moments in their lives. These range from whether or not to stay with a cheating lover to the trials and tribulations of unplanned pregnancy.

The awkwardly categorized “almost musical, almost revue” that is Songs for a New World is an incredibly challenging and unrealistic genre. The characters have extremely limited growth because they change after every three-minute song. Subtle costume changes are used to clue viewers into these quickly morphing roles but are difficult to decipher. All of the actors were between the ages of 18 and 30 and there was nothing to indicate that their characters were anyone other than, well, them. The performers had to rely solely on Brown’s Broadway-style numbers that clarified nothing about who they were supposed to be. This show itself quickly grows redundant, loud and unfortunately rather boring.

That is not to say the actors were unsuccessful in their delivery of the often jazzy, occasionally classical assortment of songs. Rebecca Flanders, who plays Woman 2, has a mature grace about her that shines, especially when she captures a saucy woman ready to leave Santa Claus in “Surabuya Santa.” It was the single most enjoyable musical number of the night and had the audience cheering.

Man 1 (Antonio Tillman) praying through song

Antonio Tillman, Man 1, managed to be the most endearing performance of the show. His warm smile and emotion-filled eyes captured the hearts of the audience. His portrayal of a young basketball player from a rough neighborhood in the jazzy piece “The Steam Train” had everyone tapping their feet.

Becca Orts, Woman 1, and Kody Bringman, Man 2, had less memorable rounds of naïve innocence. Orts’s performance of “I’m Not Afraid of Anything” was spot-on, and Bringman’s “She Cries” was enjoyable, yet the audience’s interest in the characters they portrayed was limited.

The Redhouse Arts Center, a nearly Black Box setting, is uniquely intimate and dark. The set for Songs for a New World consists of an interesting digital screen behind the actors and a set of stools they carry around depending on the song. It wasn’t a particularly eye-catching backdrop, and it didn’t enhance the moments on stage much at all. Unfortunately, the assumption that minimalism is better when it comes to pieces with rotating, morphing characters was ineffective in this case.  There simply wasn’t enough material in the show to give the audience the sense of that change.

Songs for a New World strives for something it cannot achieve. The songs are Broadway-style pop songs and it’s a chore for the audience to invest itself in each loud, long piece. The music is nice, but the unusual nature of Songs for a New World ends up feeling more confusing and exhausting than inspiring. The “new world” about which these characters sing (four times at that) seems irritatingly far away.