My scribbled notes in the dark for Act I of Jason Robert Brown’s 1995 “Songs for a New World” said “no energy,” “lighting not crisp,” “OK,” “dramatically weak,” “choreography good,” “piano outstanding,” etc. Except for Courtnie Harrington’s “Stars and the Moon” and Alexandra Croft’s “I’m Not Afraid of Anything,” no other number felt like a complete success. I was worried.
Then came Act II.
I put a star or two (three for the hilarious “Surabaya Santa”) next to every song.
I wasn’t worried anymore.
The show is a series of numbers unrelated to each other except for the broad theme of “transition:” in each case, there’s a new world — mostly of the internal/metaphorical kind — ahead for a character faced with a difficult decision. The four performers who play these various characters are Croft, Justin Dawes, Harrington, and Jahmere Holland, and they’re backed by a hard-working singing/dancing ensemble of Emily Fuller and Mani McCalmon (co-choreographers), Cameron Clarke Stevens, and Regan Zlotnick.
Back to the pianist, Dan Galliher, who is also the music director. His keyboard touch is sure on beat-heavy numbers and in rippling conversations with the singers, like “The Flagmaker, 1775,” (again featuring the superb Harrington). He and bandmates Madeline Civill-Mead and Nick Tariello color each song just so, and his training of the performers is spot-on.
Marc Christopher’s set design is, of necessity, spare because each song’s locale can be only suggested. (The rear wall, which is brightly lit in a couple of numbers, needs a coat of paint or two!) The lighting by Dimitri Vasilakos has an interesting color palate on occasion, underscoring the song’s mood. The cast is aptly dressed and coiffed by Nathan McCarten and Nichole Burkus, respectively. Props by Robert Brisson, sound by Katie Fitzmorris, and stage management by Michaela Torres complete the fine tech teamwork of a production by John Meglino.
The show is under Rose Biggerstaff’s direction, and the pleasures of Act II in particular lift the entire evening. Throughout, Biggerstaff has imaginatively used choreography, lighting, staging, and the ensemble to make each number a mini-drama, but things really start to gel with Holland’s rendition of “The World Was Dancing,” brought to life by a pair of dancers. “Christmas Lullaby” is beautifully acted and sung by Croft and is also enhanced by two dancers. Holland and Croft duet touchingly on “I’d Give It All for You,” and Dawes is compelling in “Flying Home,” his acting matching his fierce tenor.
The show’s last number is “Hear My Song,” to which Biggerstaff refers in her program notes. We are pivoting, she suggests, to a new world in ways both concrete and emotional, the consequence of a virus that has scotched plans and exposed inequalities. In “Hear My Song,” the four fine leads shape a quiet conclusion to this show about lives led, lost, and found:
I know it’s dark right now
But just believe somehow
That soon there will be light.”
Songs for a New World
WHERE: Schenectady Light Opera Company, 427 Franklin St.
WHEN: Through Jan. 30
HOW MUCH: $25-$32
MORE INFO: 518-730-7370, or sloctheater.org