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Review: Songs for a New World Ushers in a New Era at Paper Mill Playhouse

Jason Robert Brown's hopeful song cycle reopens the New Jersey theater.

Carolee Carmello in Songs for a New World
(© Evan Zimmerman)

Paper Mill Playhouse went dark in March 2020 after its portentously named production of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical revue, Unmasked. The theater now reopens with an equally fitting celebration of turning points and pivotal moments with Jason Robert Brown's soaring song cycle Songs for a New World. I'm sure Paper Mill's producing artistic director (as well as director of this production) Mark. S. Hoebee found the show's Covid-friendly four person cast an appealingly mild-mannered way to venture back into the world of live audiences. But Songs for a New World itself projects nothing small or tentative. Minimalist, absolutely. But each of its five-minute songs draws big stories out of small worlds — or small stories out of big worlds — filling every corner of space with melody and performance.

Lest Brown get all the credit, Songs for a New World only expands to the size of its container if it has a cast capable of sending it to the rafters — and not just vocally, though that is certainly key to making it through the challenging blend of jazz, gospel, funk, and pop the score requires. Even so, you could be the greatest technician in the world, and without the skill of musical storytelling, "Stars and the Moon," Brown's ballad of lost dreams, will send an audience right to dreamland (anyone who frequents cabaret shows or has attended a student showcase knows what I'm talking about). Fortunately, Hoebee has collected a quartet that stands up to all the challenges set by Brown's score and breathes into it all the vitality and newness the lyrics promise (Georgia Stitt, a beautiful composer in her own right, but who, for the sake of context, must be described here as Brown's wife, lends music supervision — while Sinai Tabak conducts the production's stellar orchestra and delivers a virtuosic performance on piano).

Since we've already broached the subject of "Stars and the Moon," probably the most popular number in Brown's entire catalogue, we may as well start with the actor who has the tall task of finding her own take on the song. Carolee Carmello earned a Tony nomination back in 1999 for her performance as Lucille Frank in Brown's debut Broadway musical Parade (Brown's score won the Tony), and all the reasons Brown has kept her in his stable of artists are on display on this production. Her "Stars and the Moon" adds a layer of calloused wit to the song's reflection on the road not taken, giving it an aspect of hard-earned wisdom about the unfulfilling nature of a superficial life. Contemplation, however, is only one of the colors she gives us throughout the evening: There's also comic acrimony in "Just One Step" (a performative suicide threat from a wealthy wife to her inattentive husband), satirical schmaltz in the crowd-pleasing "Surabaya-Santa" (a melodramatic farewell from Mrs. Claus to Santa), and explosive grief (not to mention vocal endurance) in "The Flagmaker, 1775" (a woman who sews an American flag while her husband and son fight in the Revolutionary War).

Roman Banks in Songs for a New World
(© Evan Zimmerman)

Mia Pinero, in turn, is the gentle yin to Carmello's biting yang, lending her smooth soprano voice to the ballads "I'm Not Afraid of Anything" (a woman realizing how she has been limited by the people around her) and "Christmas Lullaby" (a woman singing to, and about, her unborn child). If Carmello's various characters are looking back on their life choices, Pinero's are looking ahead to theirs, and she imbues them with the sweet sense of hope and promise that comes with such horizon-gazing (Jen Caprio captures these loose character threads in her costume designs).

Pinero also works wonderfully with Andrew Kober, with whom she shares the duet "I'd Give It All for You," a song about reunited lovers whose time apart was futile. Brown is nothing if not a master of the love song, and the charming trademark of his is that they are at their most beautiful when they are at their least affected. Kober, delivering all his numbers with regard to story first, is most Brown-ian in this way — giving unadorned but perfectly clear performances across the board.

Rounding out the cast is Roman Banks, a fresh face on the theater scene who made his Broadway debut in Dear Evan Hansen and quickly moved on to a featured role in High School: The Musical: The Musical: The Series on Disney Plus. He leans into the R&B texture of Brown's score, drawing distinctly Black characters with colorful riffs that match their alternatingly playful and restless energy. In "The Steam Train," he moonwalks across the stage as an underprivileged teenager who sets his sights on basketball stardom (choreographer Kenny Ingram gets to play in this number), while in "King of the World," he bounds frantically as a man whose freedom has been unjustly taken (Hoebee's direction suggests both a literal and metaphorical imprisonment, and in its most literal sense, points directly to the racist prison industrial system).

Banks's voice is not big and booming, but rather has a soft and youthful quality that makes you lean in a little closer. He almost offers this Songs for a New World a shadow of the young knight at the end of Camelot, tasked with running behind enemy lines to ensure the survival of King Arthur's romantic ideals. There is a bit of Camelot in Brown's hopeful song cycle, which ends with, "Listen to the song that I sing — and trust me — we'll be fine." If you believe those calming words for only the duration of this show, it is well worth it.

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