Songs for a New World: The Right Show for this Wrong Time

By Joe DeRosa; photo by Liz Lauren

Theo Ubique’s Songs for a New World beats with the turn-of-the-millennium heartbeat of hope every theater lover–or, for that matter, person with a pulse–sorely needs right now.

I brought my fourteen-year-old daughter to see Artistic Director Fred Anzevino’s take on Jason Robert Brown’s debut musical, first performed in 1995 and running now in a perfect cabaret venue for this four-person show.

I get two tickets when I review a play, so, if I have the chance, I bring one of my kids. It’s a great perk. We have the car ride together to talk, and, if the traffic’s not too bad, maybe dinner. If we’re headed to a musical, we listen to the soundtrack on the drive. Then we see the show and talk about it on the way back. Most of the time, my kids don’t make an appearance in the review. But if it fits, like this time, I write them in. More on this later. 

Songs for a New World wastes no time delivering the news with Nova Navarro’s gorgeous, roof-shaking opening proclamation “A new world calls across the ocean,” launching the four-part ensemble’s story of hope in a moment of truth. “It’s about one moment.” 

From her first notes, Navarro makes two points clear. First, the quaint cabaret can’t hold her voice. It’s nothing against Theo Ubique, the city of Evanston can’t hold Navarro. Depending on which direction she’s facing, her voice will either carry over Roger’s Park or into Wilmette. Good thing it’s gorgeous. And second, though it was written only a little more than 25 years ago, Songs for a New World is a musical postcard from a very different time. 

With “On the Deck of a Spanish Sailing Ship, 1492,” Eustace J. Williams gives a tender, soulful look at the deep roots of the challenges we face as we look to this “New World.” Herein lies Songs for a New World’s greatest gift–taken from the first page of a playbook Jason Robert Brown would go on to perfect with his brilliant backward/forward heartbreaking love story, The Last Five Years. Brown brings us right up to the edge of implausibility (and, at points, if I’m being honest, maybe a little over) then changes direction on a dime to bring us back down to earth, only to lift us up again a few moments later. 

Six songs into the show, we’ve been all over JRB’s “New World.” From “The Deck of a Spanish Sailing Ship, 1492”, to the ledge of an NYC apartment with a comically scorned suicidal wife of some guy named Murray “Just One Step” from the sidewalk, to the broken-hearted but not yet broken will of a woman who’s “Not Afraid,” to the river bank where the “River Won’t Flow,” to the “Stars and the Moon” with a dreamer who can’t quite get it right, we fly through Brown’s musical song cycle with the talented, multi-dimensional cast and a killer two-piece band. 

Backed, or perhaps led, by multi-Jeff award-winning Jeremy Ramey on piano and professor Lior Schragg on percussion, each member of the four-person cast brings a different quality to Brown’s music and Avenzino’s vision, ably enhanced by the associate director and choreographer Jamal Howard. Howard’s choreography gives the performances added energy and life, and, thankfully, saves us from the hackneyed feeling of singers singing at us from atop their stools on stage. 

By turns uplifting then heartbreaking, slapstick then soulful, angry then joyful, and always infused with hope, Songs for a New World brings us to a recurring moment of truth. With Eustace William’s “The Steam Train” and “The River Won’t Flow,” a duet with Matthew Hunter, we feel the promise of the future and the tragedy of the past. And whether it’s William’s crackling energy, on full display in “Steam Train,” or Hunter’s earnest soul, their performances bring something special.

Along with plenty of gospel and jazz, JRB weaves in a healthy dose of heartbreakingly hopeful love songs, beautiful and crushing, with Navarro and Hunter’s “The World Was Dancing” and “I’d Give It All for You.” And just when it seems like we might dwell too long in the land of love, loss, and renewal, the incredibly versatile Emily Goldberg bursts in to show off her blend of comedic gusto (Just One Step and Surabaya Santa) and emotional depth (The Flagmaker, 1776). In the hands of a lesser actor, both One Step and Santa might feel a little out of place in the musical revue–because, well, they are–but Goldberg is captivating and hilarious, and her writhing portrayal of an exasperated and indignant Mrs. Claus is a showstopper.  

Whether Goldberg is under the moon in the first act or on the bar to start the second, she and the ensemble make full use of the cabaret and James Kolditz’s simple and effective set design, which deepens the connection between the audience and the performers in this intimate space.

Songs for a New World is far from a perfect musical. Though it brims with energy and heart, there are moments and lyrics that feel a little clunky and dated. Still, it’s the perfect show for right now. 

While sitting in the theater, twenty-five-ish years from the musical’s first performance, fully masked and mired in an ongoing pandemic with the rest of the audience and the country, I found myself thinking the recurring promise of Songs for a New World— hope, love, and perseverance in the face of heartbreak, tragedy, and injustice–felt a little like the final lines of Brown’s “Stars and the Moon”…

“And the years went by

And it never changed

And it never grew

And I never dreamed

And I woke one day

And I looked around

And I thought, “My God

I’ll never have the moon.”

The performances were fantastic and so was the music, but I couldn’t help but feel a little nostalgic for the kind of hope we felt before the millennium. It made me miss the days when the challenges we faced were just the first part of the song, not the entire play. I kinda wanted a twenty-five-ish year do-over. Maybe a little less selfishness this time and a little more unity, a bit less frustration and a bit more understanding, a little less perseverating and a few more solutions. Maybe we could do better this time. 

Then I looked at my daughter sitting next to me. She was born in 2007. The world I’m frustrated with is the only world she knows. But she was into it. She was into the music, and maybe she was even feeling a little bit hopeful. Seeing her, I knew this time we could do better, and I thought maybe somewhere between my wish for a do-over and her hope for the future we might find the truth. I asked her about it on the way home, but she just wanted to listen to the musical again. I took this as a good sign.  

Songs for a New World runs through Oct. 24 and tickets are available at theo-u.com/

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