By Brian Scott Lipton
Jason Robert Brown’s Songs for a New World has clearly amassed quite a following since its 1995 Off-Broadway premiere, or so it seemed given the hooting, hollering and visceral anticipation that preceded many of its numbers at Thursday night’s Encores! Off Center production at New York City Center. And the crowd’s excitement is often understandable: many of the 18 songs on display rank among the finest story songs, love ballads and comic gems penned in the past few decades.
Admittedly, Kate Whoriskey’s well-conceived production doesn’t make any more of a case for these rather unrelated songs being put together in one show than the original production did. But it matters very little given how consistently persuasively and often thrillingly these tunes are being performed by a cast of four excellent vocalists, five amazingly athletic dancers (flawlessly executing Rennie Harris’ hip-hop-inspired choreography) and a glorious sounding nine-piece orchestra led by James Sampliner.
Familiar to both Broadway theatergoers for his roles in “Anything Goes” and “Violet,” and TV viewers for his starring role on NBC’s “Chicago Med,” Colin Donnell brings the necessary callowness to the protagonists of “She Cries,” and “The World Was Dancing.” He also conveys the romantic nature of the now-contrite lover in the duet “I’d Give All For You” opposite the truly spectacular Solia Pfeiffer, a relative newcomer blessed with both a gorgeous soprano and powerful belt. Her versions of the heart-wrenching “I’m Not Afraid of Anything” and the stirring “Christmas Lullaby” rank among the production’s highlights.
Shoshana Bean, who first gained fame as Idina Menzel’s replacement in “Wicked,” shows off her serious comic chops as the wronged women in Brown’s two funniest numbers: “Just One Step” and “Surabaya Santa.” She’s equally effective in the dramatic “The Flagmaker, 1775” and does a lovely job with Brown’s well-known wistful ballad “Stars and the Moon” (though in fairness, her rendition pales beside many others, including Jessica Molaskey’s, Betty Buckley’s and Audra McDonald’s).
Without question, though, the crowd favorite had to be the ultra-energetic, big voiced Mykal Kilgore, who can wail, riff, do splits, move you to tears (as the confused prisoner in “King of the World”) or come close to literally blowing the roof of the famed auditorium (in “Flying Home”).
“Hear My Song,” the company implores in the finale for this 105-minute offering, and, let’s just say, you will be glad you did.
Photos: Joan Marcus
Songs for a New World continues through June 30 at New York City Center (151 West 55th Street.) Visit www.nycitycenter.org for tickets and information.