In 1995, audiences did not yet know composer-lyricist Jason Robert Brow. After all, he had not won his Tony Awards for best score (Parade and Bridges of Madison County). Nor had he written The Last Five Years, the two-character, backward-and-forward narrative musical that regional theaters all across the country have since embraced.
But he had penned Songs for a New World, an eclectic four-character song cycle that announced a major talent had arrived on the scene. Certainly Slow Burn Theatre’s artistic director Patrick Fitzwater heard its clarion call and has now welcomed it as the simple, yet emotion-laden show that would reopen his company after 18 pandemic-forced dark months.
You could see the evening as a dozen-and-a-half unconnected musical numbers, and admittedly some of these songs are a challenge to connect with. But Brown is clearly showing his versatility as a composer, with songs many of which are self-contained character-driven playlets. His lyrics cry out with passion, intelligence and more than a little humor. And they are well matched with musical gusto, from gospel to rock to jazz to pure Broadway, foreshadowing the career that lay ahead for Brown.
Writing more than 25 years ago, Brown could hardly have known about COVID-19, but listen to the lyric of the opening number “The New World” (“All of a sudden, life is different than you planned”) and try not to think of the pandemic. The same goes for the reassuring “Listen to my song and trust me: We’ll be fine.”
Not every number in the show is soothing, but when the performers join voices, harmony rules. Individually, the cast members also shine, and if Heather Jane Rolff shines more than the others that could be because she is dealt the best of the show’s material with her four solos.
Certainly that is the case with “Stars and the Moon,” a wistful life lesson in materialism that has become a fixture of concerts and cabarets. She is more overtly comic on “Just One Step,” a cry for attention that sounds like some of what Brown would write two decades later in the unfortunately short-lived Honeymoon in Vegas. And mimicking Kurt Weill, Brown plants his tongue firmly in cheek with “Surabaya Santa,” which Rolff delivers as a vampy Mrs. Claus.
Darius J. Manuel, a veteran of Slow Burn’s Tarzan and Memphis, chugs powerfully through “Steam Train,” Cecelia Snow belts with sheer defiance “I’m Not Afraid of Anything,” and lanky Timothy Michael Quinn and Snow blend well on the duet “I’d Give It All For You.” Matching each song style with apparent ease is musical director/pianist Eric Alsford and his six-member combo.
In addition to his skillful staging, Fitzwater is credited with the set — a simple series of multi-level gray platforms that put the emphasis on the score and on the quartet of vocalists. He also designed the sound, and the projections. And while there’s not much choreography, that is Fitzwater’s handiwork — footwork? —– too.
Songs for a New World is where Brown’s theater career began and Slow Burn returns to activity demonstrating why we should get to know and appreciate his work.
SONGS FOR A NEW WORLD, Slow Burn Theatre Co., Broward Center for the Performing Arts. Amaturo Theatre. 201 SW 5th Ave., Fort Lauderdale. Through Sun., Oct. 24. $49-$65. 954-462-0222.