“Songs for a New World” sparkles with originality and style

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Songs for a New World text image with a shooting star in the background
Songs for a New World

Roman Banks displays a powerful voice and excellent acting chops

The Paper Mill Playhouse reopens with a solid hit—Jason Robert Brown’s 1995 song cycle Songs for a New World. With many of its songs touching on choices made at turning points in the singers’ lives, the show is by turns touching, funny, rueful, and hopeful.

Composer/lyricist Jason Robert Brown, whose other musical works include the historical drama Parade, adaptations of the movies The Bridges of Madison County and Honeymoon in Vegas, and the imaginative The Last Five Years, displays an inventive musical mind and a witty lyrical touch. While he may not yet be a household name, his work, as seen in this show, puts him in the ranks of the best of the current crop of stage composers.

Complementing the songs are the performances of the four-person cast. Carolee Carmello, a veteran Broadway star, nearly steals the show with her riotous “Surabaya-Santa” and “Just One Step,” both dealing with fed-up wives’ bids for their husbands’ attention. She also neatly handles the rueful “Stars and the Moon,” about a woman choosing a suitor.

Roman Banks displays a powerful voice and excellent acting chops as a prisoner in “King of the World,” a man facing mortality in “Flying Home,” and a troubled captain in “On the Deck of a Spanish Sailing Ship, 1492”, the latter two numbers brimming with a gospel-like spirituality. Andrew Kober portrays the conflicted feelings of men in relationships in his solo “She Cries” and his duets with the radiant Mia Pinero, “The World Was Dancing” and “I’d Give It All for You.” Ms. Pinero herself shines in “I’m Not Afraid of Anything” and “Christmas Lullaby,” elegantly displaying respectively independence and maternal warmth.

The cast shines under the direction of Paper Mill’s Producing Artistic Director Mark S. Hoebee and the choreography of Kenny Ingram. Charlie Morrison’s lighting designs made a dazzling contribution to the show, balanced against the simple and effective stage design of Kelly James Tighe and costumes by Jen Caprio.

The best orchestras are those that do not try to call attention to themselves. To produce a just-right musical accompaniment, conductor/pianist Sinai Tabak led an impeccable onstage orchestra blending a string quartet with a basic bass guitar-drums-percussion band. Their quality shone through in a delicious cello line here, the unexpected ring of a guitar there, and the massive role played by Tabak’s piano throughout.

In a more perfect world, Songs for a New World would be recorded on video and made available to sophisticated aficionados of musical theatre. Unfortunately, it cannot be, so the best thing to do is to head to the Paper Mill Playhouse for this season’s opening production of Songs for a New World. I heartily recommend you do so.

Songs for a New World is presented by the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn through November 7th. For more information or to order tickets, go to papermill.org or call 973-376-4343. The theatre requires proof of vaccination and photo ID to enter, and masks must be worn inside the building.