Acclaimed for musicals Parade, The Bridges of Madison County and The Last Five Years – the latter made its cinematic debut earlier this year with Broadway's Jeremy Jordan and screen musical darling Anna Kendrick – American playwright and composer Jason Robert Brown's first staged show, Songs for a New World, is more a revue than a traditional piece of musical theatre, but it has the same distinct lyrical voice which has made the aforementioned shows much-loved among theatre lovers.
Portrayed by just four actors, who are on stage for the duration of the 90-minute piece, at first glance there doesn't seem to be a coherent storyline as the actors portray different characters throughout and for the most part they are solitary performances. Yet the longing for a better life and the hope that perhaps this dream can become a reality in the 'new world' was the consistent theme linking them all together, which created a heartfelt piece that through its surprising mixture of styles – from blues and gospel to pop and the more classic musical theatre tone – went straight to the heart.
Staged at the intimate St James Theatre in London's Victoria, the closeness to the audience and the very basic set and costume designs meant there was nowhere to hide for the actors; they were in the spotlight at all times. It's a risky direction to take, but one that paid off with the immensely talented cast gathered for this 20th anniversary production.
Cynthia Erivo and Damian Humbley first took the stage and provided a mesmerising opening, setting the bar high for the rest of the evening. They were complemented by Jenna Russell, who stole the show during the comedic Surabaya Santa, which tells the frustrated story of Mrs Claus; and Dean John-Wilson, who as the least experienced cast member was the weakest performer but still did an admirable job, and with a hint of boy band to his voice at times his portrayal reminded me of Off-Broadway hit Altar Boyz.
From the opening bars I was enthralled by the stunning vocal performance of Erivo echoing through the auditorium and I continued to be compelled as it was followed by one fantastic musical number after another, which included several funny pieces by Russell and moving ones by Humbley and Erivo. However, after the previously mentioned Surabaya Santa about two-thirds through, the show lost its stride somewhat and never regained that initial momentum. As it was a relatively short piece, this mean that it was only the last 20 minutes that felt slightly subpar to the previous hour though.
Had the songs been more powerful towards those final moments this would've been a flawless show, as it is it's a solid 4 stars and with this phenomenal cast this is a production that can absolutely not be missed.
Songs for a New World is running at St James Theatre until 8 August 2015. You can book tickets here.