Songs for a New World, production by SpeakEasy Stage Company, recorded at Calderwood Pavilion, Boston Center for the Arts. (Live streaming, through June 8. speakeasystage.com and 617-482-3279).
By Jules Becker
Call “Songs for a New World” the perfect musical survival guide for 2021 America. Although Jason Robert Brown first staged this theatrical song cycle Off-Broadway in 1995, its insights about human hopes and choices possess new urgency for a nation grappling not only with COVID-19 but even more with racism and domestic terrorism. Thanks to a powerhouse SpeakEasy Stage Company revival—recorded with all necessary protocols during the pandemic, those insights prove freshly timely as America commemorates the centenary of the massacre of black Tulsa and continues to deal with the deadly January 6 attempted coup at the Capitol.
Under company artistic director Paul Daigneault’s strong guidance and Jose Delgado’s inspired musical direction, “Songs”‘ historical and individual implications bear new clarity. The early entreaty “On the Deck of a Spanish Sailing Ship 1492” may call to mind Walt Whitman’s “O Captain, My Captain” Lincoln tribute as a captain prays for the welfare of his passengers.
Davron S. Monroe brings great feeling to his caring. The later pleading “The Flagmaker, 1775” creates a kind of thematic frame with its predecessor as a woman sews stars and stripes while hoping her husband and son are well fighting in the Revolutionary War. Jennifer Ellis delivers the song’s concern with singular poignancy. The challenges to hopes and dreams have an important place in the cycle’s conception as well. In “The Steam Train,” a young would be basketball superstar sings of locking up a deal with Nike. At the same time, he confronts the alarming history of his class—four fellow students in jail and six dead. During this brilliantly edgy number, the ambitious African-American descends from early optimism to eventual grim awareness as he promises “You don’t know me but you will.” Riveting Dwayne P. Mitchell displays a richly lyrical voice as the character’s insecurity grows. He also demonstrates his athleticism, particularly with an impressive split.
Rebecca Rae Robles
Monroe, wearing a T-shirt tellingly bearing the plea “Stop Killing Us,” delivers this powerful call for dignity with a strong combination of vigor and vulnerability. All of the talented nine performers in “Songs” (originally sung by a quartet but just as effective in the SpeakEasy configuration) easily capture the vigor and vulnerability that also distinguish individual narratives.
Laura Marie Duncan is stunningly taunting as a Fifth Avenue New Yorker trying to gain the attention of a neglectful husband in “One Small Step.” Rebecca Rae Robles catches all of the façade of bravery and catalogue of contrasting fears in the ironic song “I’m Not Afraid of Anything.” Rashid Al Nuami displays deep resonance as a man frustrated by the quickly changing moods of his love in “She Cries.” The arguable high point is Ellis’ devilish Mrs. Clause complaining about Nick’s holiday absence in “Surabaya Santa,” a clever parody of the Kurt Weill gem “Surabaya Johnny.” Look for equally solid work from Mikaela Myers, Alexander Tan and Victor Carrillo Tracey. Brown, who makes an appearance from his home before the close, has said that “Songs for a New World” is about a moment of choice and taking a stand. Daigneault and Delgado have made SpeakEasy Stage’s choices a state-of-the-art revival.