Getting to see a show you obsess over the cast recording of but never actually thought you’d get to see live is one of the most exciting things ever and for me, Songs For A New World is exactly that show. Rarely a day goes by where I don’t listen to at least one song from it, so when it was announced that it would play a special 20th anniversary performance in London I was a bit excited. Ok, a lot excited. I therefore (understandably) had exceedingly high expectations that this performance was going to be every bit as brilliant I dreamed it would be.
The real star of the show here is Jason Robert Brown’s aforementioned utterly life-changingly brilliant music and lyrics. Songs For A New World‘s score is a collection of seemingly non-related songs that shift around different people, places and times – from declarations of love, to the 57th floor of a New York apartment, to the inner turmoil of Mrs Claus (yes, that is as in Santa). Alone all are brilliant and could easily be the stand out number of any show, but together they become a musical theatre force to be reckoned with. Robert Brown’s piano-focused scores are some of my favourites and this show is no exception, with not a single song that I don’t love.
Adam Lenson offers an interesting approach to the direction of Songs For A New World. Taking place in a small, seemingly unloved apartment, the four cast members tell their stories by taking items from cardboard boxes scattered across the stage. The cast remains on stage throughout doing a number of jobs including harmonies, duets, and awkward dancing (as is the case during The World Was Dancing). Initially I found it quite distracting to see other cast members moving around whilst one was singing, but in the end it won me over and I enjoyed Lenson’s refreshing take on the staging of this show.
All four cast members perform to varying degrees of brilliance. I was not convinced by Dean John-Wilson as Man 1 – while he truly impressed me with his vocals during On The Deck Of A Spanish Sailing Ship, he seemed very uncomfortable with the high falsetto notes of The Steam Train and King Of The World. I ended up feeling really negative about him which was a shame as it’s one of the only things I can think of that was wrong with the show (this may sound harsh but trust me, it’s not as harsh as the two guys sat next to me who after the show asked if he had ended up on stage by accident). Damian Humbley was solid and assured; each note sung was spot on and his traditional musical theatre style vocals really suited this piece, yet I didn’t leave feeling particularly blown away by any aspect of his performance.
Jenna Russell and Cynthia Erivo, however, are on a totally different level of talent. Russell’s rendition of Just One Step was one of the funniest and most impressive performances I have seen for ages – she hit the humour of the song perfectly and I ended up having it stuck in my head for about three days afterwards (which is no joke, Murray). I was looking forward to hearing Surabaya-Santa and again Russell did not disappoint, having the whole audience in hysterics from the first line. Cynthia Erivo’s captivating and innocent vocals were just perfect and I left totally in awe of her; Christmas Lullaby and I’m Not Afraid Of Anything were absolutely stunning. It’s easy to see why she’s starting performances on Broadway in the autumn and I look forward to her having an extremely successful career (and that’s partially because I want to be able to tell everyone I saw her here first).
Despite it’s few shortcomings, Songs For A New World was one of the most incredible theatrical experiences I have ever had. I have never felt so compelled to give a standing ovation at the end of a show (as appeared to be the opinion throughout the audience) and would not hesitate to return again… if only it were playing for more than 3 weeks.
Songs For A New World is playing at the St James Theatre until 8th August.