Before anything else is said about this show, it must be stated emphatically that it is a musical experience the likes of which is rarely seen in Grand Forks. This “abstract musical” doesn’t have a coherent storyline, but what it does have are beautiful songs in a variety of styles that require big voices to carry them off. And this, the show has in spades. Cast members Maura Ferguson, Elisa Olson, Matthew Hippen, and Tyler Jon Rood all have moments to shine on their own, but are truly spectacular when harmonizing: no one fades to the background or is lost in the cacophony, and their voices mesh spectacularly. Add to that a 3-piece music section under the deft direction of David Henrickson, and you have a musical treat that is worth the cost of admission, regardless of what you think of the content.
Regarding the content: this show isn’t an easy one to piece together in one sitting. As was noted in the scant promotional materials for the show, it isn’t one with a specific storyline but rather a collection of songs performed by 4 actors who, despite not playing the same literal characters throughout, do have continually developing “story arcs.” Some of the story arcs are easier to put together than others. Olson’s sequence, for example, includes a song about a young woman who is unafraid of the world but whose lover is afraid of connection, followed later by a song in which a woman is left the night before her wedding and a song where two lovers reunite, one having run away and one who stayed behind and hid away from the world in their pain. Some of the other arcs are a bit more elusive, and certain songs seem hardly to fit at all. There are two songs with a more historical focus, “On the Deck of Spanish Sailing Ship, 1492” and “The Flagmaker, 1775″ that are particularly incongruous with the other, more modern pieces in the show. These songs are certainly beautiful, especially “The Flagmaker, 1775” which uses the creation of the first United States flag as a situation to explore the effects of war in women’s personal and domestic lives, but it’s much harder to place the songs in the larger confines of the show and may require slightly more mental contortions than the average theatre-goer is willing to invest.
Another oddity in “Songs,” which also happens to be the most effective comic moment in the show, is “Surabaya Santa,” a laugh-out loud confessional from the wife of the world’s most famous philanthropist, Saint Nick himself. She worries that her husband has been eyeing Blitzen a little too closely and vows to divorce Santa and get his entire enterprise in the settlement. Elisa Olson, who earlier broke hearts with the bittersweet “I’m Not Afraid” shows her versatility with this song, bringing Mrs. Claus to life with a voice that swings from throaty faux-German accent (she begins the number dragging on a wooden chair that she uses Cabaret-style to play up the laugh factor) to giggling homemaker-wannabe to vindictive divorcee. I’m still not sure how this song is supposed to fit in with the rest of the show, but I’ve stopped caring. It was an entertaining song done well by a talented actress. Leave it at that.
The writer/composer himself described the theme of the show as being about “the moment of decision,” but I prefer theatre critic Scott Miller’s assertion that the show is more about times when life seems to have crumbled around us, and how we deal with it (or don’t), and how we survive (for more of Miller’s commentary on this show, click here:http://www.newlinetheatre.com/newworldchapter.html ). For many of the characters in these songs, it is not their own moment of decision they struggle with but rather someone else’s, and how to deal with the aftermath. In some cases, it isn’t until long after the decision is made that one discovers the consequences. Ferguson’s rendition of “Stars and the Moon” was easily one of the highlights of the show, as a woman who looks back on her life and the choices she made for love (and money). She realizes that she achieved exactly the life and lifestyle she set out for, but sacrificed love and genuine experience and finds unexpected regret as the consequence of pursuing her ambitions.
In fact, the show is at its most successful when it attempts to tug at the heartstrings. These are the songs that are the most accessible to the audience, and allow an entry point; once inside, the audience can take in the other numbers and start doing the work of piecing together these disjointed arcs. It’s not an easy process but a rewarding one.
Besides the trouble with finding the show’s sense of “flow,” my complaints are few. The staging was awkward; most of what little “choreography” did exist merely served to move the featured singer down the stairs from the mainstage to a platform. The cast sort of rotated in this way, like a school music program, and the show might have benefitted from a more traditional concert-style arrangement. There was no real dancing to speak of (except for a few very basic moves by Hippen during “The Steam Train”) and all of this rearranging and circling and climbing up and down the front stairs did nothing to enhance the show’s real jewel: the gorgeous voice talent.
You have one night left (Saturday, December 29) to see the show, and it is more than worth your time to do so. If you find yourself having trouble with the abstract nature of the show, just let go and bask in the luscious music and vocal performances. This show is the perfect end to a year of wonderful local theatre, with more to come in 2013. Tickets are $15 Adults and $12 Seniors/Students/Military. Produced by the Empire Theatre Company under the direction of Chris Berg.
(As a little bonus, just in case you need more convincing to go see this show: a video of the fabulous Audra McDonald singing “Stars and the Moon” – just enough cheek to sneak up on you at the end!)
Tags: Chris Berg, David Henrickson, Elisa Olson, Empire Arts Center, Empire Theater, Empire Theater Company, Empire Theatre, Empire Theatre Company, Janessa, Janessa J, Janessa J Champagne, Janessa Jaye, Janessa Jaye Champagne, local theater, local theatre, Matthew Hippen, maura Ferguson, Songs for a New World, theater, theatre, Tyler Jon Rood