Review by Daz Gale
Following a rare UK outing for You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown at Christmas, Upstairs at the Gatehouse in Highgate continue their impressive programming by reviving a cult classic from Jason Robert Brown in a new production of Songs For A New World . With the most recent outings for this show having taken place at the London Palladium and in the cast’s living rooms as an online stream during the dark days of lockdown, would this version give me everything I wanted from the show… or would I still be longing for the moon?
Songs For A New World originated off-Broadway in 1995 where it has enjoyed multiple revivals since on both sides of the Atlantic. Rather than have a through narrative, it is a song cycle with all songs standalone from one another though they all share one common thread – the moment of decision. Each musical number features at least one unnamed character as they prepare to make a choice in these moments that define us and where our life may lead – be it the end of a relationship, the chance to make a change or the start of something new. Through these fork in the road moments, we see characters choose to make that change or turn around and carry on as they were.
The biggest strength in Songs For A new World lies in its music. Written by Jason Robert Brown, the songs featured are sensational with some of them transcending beyond the show as a staple for musical theatre concerts, particularly ‘Stars And The Moon’ which has been performed by everybody from Shoshana Bean to Audra McDonald. With multiple genres featuring, it creates a rich and versatile show where Jason Robert Brown’s material speak for itself, showcasing his phenomenal talents.
That is going to remain true for any production of Songs For A New World, unless they drastically change his music or lyrics (God forbid) but what of this particular production? For one, the music is played beautifully by a six-piece band led by MD Liam Holmes, expertly bringing the material to life in a sound that appears far grander than the relatively humble space of Upstairs at the Gatehouse. Though at times, the sound mix proved a bit inconsistent, risking drowning out the vocals of the cast, it always sounded glorious.
Taking on these complex and often demanding songs is no small ask but a cast of four incredible performers were on hand to try to blow the roof off the building. Lizzy Parker delighted with a big voice demanding even bigger performances for her own musical numbers ‘I’m Not Afraid Of Anything’ and a rousing ‘Christmas Lullaby’ while Eleanore Frances got a truly dramatic moment in the thematically difficult but flawlessly executed ‘Just One Step’ as well as delivering a note-perfect rendition of the number we were all waiting for, ’Stars And The Moon’.
Christopher Cameron exuded charisma as he charmed his way through numbers ‘The World Was Dancing’ and ‘She Cries’ with the cast completed by Luke Walsh in what for me was the performance of the night. Luke showcased a voice that seemingly knew no limits with a range so impressive, it almost felt like an Adam Lambert concert. From his opening number, the bar was set ridiculously high – a standard he kept up with highlight ‘King Of The World’ and bringing the show towards its close with a soaring ‘Flying Home’. On ‘Steam Train’, Luke as “Man 2” exclaims “You don’t know me… but you will”. After this performance, I have no doubt about that whatsoever – a star is born.
The four performers blended together beautifully with heavenly harmonies prevalent throughout the performance. While a large part of the show sees three cast members taking a seat while the fourth takes centre stage, this always led to a large impact when they joined in, creating a truly gorgeous and harmonious sound. Though it is tricky on a song cycle to create connection between four seemingly separate people, they did a great job of coming together as one when needed.
One thing that sadly let this production down slightly was the direction. The material is there to ensure a strong show and with such a talented cast, it should have been world class from start to finish. However, some clumsy and confusing choices meant some musical numbers and their powerful themes lost their impact while a repeated choice to make the cast stare blankly into the corner of the theatre as opposed to the audience minimised the connection which is so paramount to the storytelling of these songs. For some reason or another, the moving and affecting score didn’t always resonate as it should with a disconnect between the material and the direction creating a disconnect with the audience.
Though not perfect by a long shot, there is still plenty on offer in Songs For A New World to ensure a fantastic theatre experience. Jason Robert Brown’s songs are a thing of beauty in itself, with the ones present here exploring the very essence of humanity in a way that at best becomes profoundly moving. A truly exceptional cast mitigated any of the issues with creative choices, making the most of what they had been given and elevating the show massively. Slightly rough around the edges but still a production worthy of this show’s legacy and cult following and another example of why Upstairs at the Gatehouse is an incredibly exciting and versatile space, well worthy of venturing several tube stops out of the West End for.
Songs For A New World plays at Upstairs at the Gatehouse until 3rd March. Tickets from https://www.upstairsatthegatehouse.com/
Photos by Clarissa Debenham