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Songs For A New World Songs For A New World, L-R: Cynthia Erivo, Damian Humbley, Jenna Russell, Dean John Wilson
Photo by Darren Bell

Songs For A New World
Music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown
St James Theatre, London

Reviewed by Jarlath O'Connell

Someone once said the problem with William Hague was that he started acting like an elder statesman before he'd even been a statesman. Similarly, Jason Robert Brown appears to have been crowned a Great American Songwriter before he had any hits. He has a cult following and I now fear for my life.

It was of course not his fault to be acclaimed as the New Sondheim at the tender age of 25, gifted and all as he is, but very soon he was the subject of tribute concerts and compilation albums, when the pickings were still slim. Stylistically his work fuses AOR stylings with theatrical lyrics, sort of Billy Joel crossed with Sondheim, but while his songs can often display great verve and are rhythmically complex, they rarely deliver the hook of a pop hit and at their weakest the more theatrical numbers can be deadeningly prosaic.

This song cycle (it doesn't have a book) is the "20th anniversary production" but it was at the time essentially just an audition piece – a calling card to producers saying "look what I can do". In the interim Brown has established himself although he's had a strained relationship with Broadway. The four performers do not play the same characters throughout the show (and are named Man 1 & 2 and Woman 1 & 2) but they do each have consistently developing character arcs nonetheless and the songs focus on a "moment of decision" for each individual.

Cynthia Erivo: "a soaring beauty ... catch her before she departs"

The reason for seeing this show however is the astonishing cast. Jenna Russell and Damian Humbley have form as two of the best talents in the West End and they are joined by Cynthia Erivo, who only graduated from RADA in 2010 then burst onto the scene in The Color Purple (which transfers to Broadway this fall). She is simply radiant. A natural singing and acting talent who is going places. Her rendition of 'I'm Not Afraid of Anything' has a soaring beauty which will stay with you. We probably won't see her for a while, so this is a last chance to catch her before she departs.

Russell's seductive voice and intelligent styling can handle any song but here she also brings her impeccable comic timing to numbers like 'Surabaya Santa'. This is a Marlene Dietrich-like concoction about a very needy and neglected Mrs Santa. The quartet is completed by the athletic young Dean John-Wilson who not only has to hold his own among this lot but also has to deliver the more high- powered gospel-infused numbers, which push him beyond his limits.

It being a song cycle it would have benefited from some minimalism, so we could focus on the singers, but for some unfathomable reason, the director Adam Lenson stages it as if it were a book musical and with a full set. This decision puts more strain on the actors, because while trying to interpret often challenging material, they are required to pace around in odd patterns adopting meaningful poses while moving furniture and props. To what end? To quote the old gag about Phantom of the Opera, "I guess if you can't move the audience, move the scenery".

Tickets: www.stjamestheatre.co.uk


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