Friday, August 07, 2015

SONGS FOR A NEW WORLD at St. James Theatre

It's not often you see (or hear) a song cycle these days so lucky for all of us there is a new production of SONGS FOR A NEW WORLD by Jason Robert Brown which is currently playing at the St. James Theatre, one of the most uncomfortable theatres in the West End.

I must put my hand up right from the get-go and say that Jason Robert Brown's music leaves me rather cold, it strikes me as neither fish, nor fowl nor good red herring.  They aspire to profundity but the blandness of the cabaret-style lyrics offer no real 'moments of being'.  The tumbling words suggest Sondheim but with none of the audaciousness, or genius.  To paraphrase Virginia Woolf (again) 'he aims to soar but agrees to perch'.

What has stayed in my mind are the show's two female performances.  The male performers are Dean John-Wilson (last seen as Ninoy Aquino in HERE LIES LOVE) and Damian Humbley but they both seemed to be lacking heft in their performances.  They really should have given Humbley more to do than sit around looking depressed and rumpled in his suit.

Jenna Russell makes an impression with her solos as the sadder-but-wiser woman, although the lengthy, unfunny one she sings standing on a window ledge had me wishing she would jump.

However they were all outshone by Cynthia Erivo who lit up the stage with pure star wattage.  It is two years since we first saw her starring in the Menier's acclaimed production of THE COLOR PURPLE.  In my blog I said the production cried out for a transfer - well, it never made it to the West End but it is opening on Broadway later this year as Erivo is recreating her role of Celie opposite Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson.

That's a remarkable achievement for a performer who is not that well known outside of theatre circles but Cynthia Erivo is a remarkable talent.  I was delighted to hear that she had won the third prize in last year's Ian Charleson Awards for her performance in the Donmar's HENRY IV.

In SONGS FOR A NEW WORLD, Cynthia simply stood and sang, her gloriously warm, honey-like voice filling the room along with her effortless charisma.  Winning and sympathetic, Cynthia Erivo gave this rather attenuated show a real heart and soul.

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