SONGS FOR A NEW WORLD

by DICK KEREKES & LEISLA SANSOM
ABET opened its last show of 2013, with Jason Robert Brown’s creation entitled “Songs for a New World.” Mr. Brown put this collection of his songs together several years ago, prior to his achieving fame by winning a Tony for his musical “Parade” (which was staged at Players by the Sea, a few seasons ago).
This is a musical but one unlike the traditional musicals we experience, most of which have linear storylines and unambiguous conclusions. The seventeen songs in this two-act production stand alone, and each song has its own plot that unfolds as it is being sung. If there is an underlying theme, we could say it is about life, and moments and incidents in the changing lives of the character or characters in each song. Needless to say, as challenging as the music is to the vocalists and the band, it is equally challenging to the audience, as it requires listening with added attention to the lyrics for the artist’s intent to be fully appreciated.
Let us set the stage for you. It is performed along the entire ABET stage, in front of a black scrim behind which we can see the orchestra at various points. On the stage are four white stools and four white square boxes, all of which are frequently moved about to accommodate the on-stage action. The four performers, two men and two women, are dressed in simple white linen attire.
To best give you an idea of what goes on in this dynamic show, we will briefly relate in condensed versions a portion of some of the stories in the songs. The songs include both solos and ensemble pieces.
TYLER HARWOOD AND JENNIFER C. PAULK, two performers new to the Jacksonville scene, performed “I’d Give It All For You,” which explored the difficulty of relationships and the problems that can drive couples apart. After considering what was not good with their life together, they finally conclude that life together is after all better than being apart. Mr. Harwood, a recent graduate of the University of Central Florida where he appeared in several musicals, is now making Jacksonville his home and is in business with his father and brother. Tyler has an imposing stage presence and a tremendous vocal range. JENNIFER C. PAULK has a family and is now making Jacksonville her home. She brings a very impressive resume of musicals performed in California and North Carolina. She has performed such roles as Mother in “Ragtime” and Lucy in “Jekyll & Hyde,” and she has a wonderfully clear and rich voice.
MADALINE HILL performs the most humorous number in the show with “Surabaya-Santa (which is a parody of a song from a 1929 German musical ” Happy End,” by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill). Ms. Hill is Mrs. Claus, a German torch singer, whose song is about the faults and flaws of her husband Santa, who, according to her, was a naughty, naughty guy himself. The second number that she sang, also a solo, was “Just One Step,” in which she is a woman standing on the window ledge of a skyscraper, 57 stories above the city streets. She relates complaints about her husband that have driven her to this contemplated fatal step, but interestingly enough is concerned about how such a death would affect her children. Ms. Hill came back to the world of musical theatre last summer in ABET’s “The Last Five Years.” which was also written by Jason Robert Brown. The Dual Critics can remember the days when she was appearing in roles at The Foundation Academy as the leading lady. We thank her for sharing her wonderful vocal talents with Jacksonville audiences once again.
HECTOR GONZALEZ TORO, whom we have previously reviewed, has made a number of stage appearances on our local stages, and in addition is frequently a featured soloist at local churches. We recall his excellent performance as Demon Devil in “Once On This Island” on ABET’s stage and as the Pastry Chef in “The Drowsy Chaperone” at Theatre Jacksonville. You may have heard him sing before but never as in this production; he almost raises the rafters of the theater. Two of his solos, “The Steam Train” and “King of the World,” are very different and display his tremendous versalitity.
ZEEK SMITH is both the Director and the Musical Director of this excellent production. He can be heard leading his orchestra on the piano, with STEFANIE BATSON (Synthesizer), DAMON MARTIN (Bass) ALEX LeMERCHANT SMITH (Percussion) and MICHAEL TAYLOR (Drums). Mr. Smith also designed the set, with BRYAN FRANK as Light Designer and LEANNE GULLO as Stage Manager.
In conclusion, may we say that theatre is meant to take its audience on a journey, and this is certainly an interesting one. Mr. Smith cast this show in an exemplary manner with performers who have the ability to understand human needs and to see their consequences. The entire ensemble and orchestra performed the complex songs with confidence, passion, sensitivity, and precise dynamic shading.
Plan a theatre adventure and see “Songs For A New World,” which continues through December 22. Visit abettheatre.com or call 904-249-7177 for reservations.

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