Jason Robert Brown may not be as famous as, say, Andrew Lloyd Webber to UK audiences but his work is slowly gaining the reputation it deserves here.
His rich material is also providing opportunities for local groups seeking a change for the traditional cannon of Rogers and Hammerstein.
Appeal Theatre Group are one such company and their staging of Brown’s 1995 musical, Songs For A New World, will do much to encourage more people to discover this thrilling work.
The show itself is difficult to summarise. More of a song cycle than a traditional book musical, a series of what initially seem stand-alone numbers develop through the evening as a group of Americans sing of their hopes, fears and challenges. What could easily be a disjointed evening of musical melodies becomes a moving and evocative reflection on life.
Mixing gospel, jazz, classical and modern musical motifs, Brown’s marries a wide range of musical genres and couples them with complex, often darkly witty, lyrics to provide a multi-layered score. This complexity makes it a challenge to perform but Appeal Theatre Group have assembled a 10 strong ensemble who negotiate the piece with flair. Close harmonies are delivered with ease and solo numbers performed with skill and vocal strength.
Although all give strong performances, some individual numbers and performances stick in the memory; Jan Needle’s Stars And The Moon, a vocal powerhouse filled with emotion, Shelley Clempson channelling of the spirit of Marlene Dietrich as a spurned Mrs Santa Claus, and Phil Kinsella’s gospel-fuelled Flying Home among the highlights.
Jo King’s musical direction revels in the variety of Brown’s score while John Welton’s direction keeps action flowing smoothly. Damien Goddard’s wonderfully atmospheric lighting design provides the visual spectacle in an otherwise simple staging.
It’s often difficult to convince audiences to book for unfamiliar shows. You may not have heard of Songs for A New World before but fans of musical theatre should flock to the Jerwood Dance House.
Jason Robert Brown is one of the most exciting new composers in Musical Theatre and in this production Appeal Theatre Group has well and truly thrown down the gauntlet. Other local groups will have to raise their game to come up with a stronger production this year.