Songs for a New World
Presented by Little City Musical Theatre Company
April 4-6, 8 p.m.
South of Broadway Theatre
1080 E. Montague Ave., North Charleston
The Little City Theatre Company packs a lot of energy into its debut show, Songs for a New World, which opened Friday. It’s an effervescent collection of different musical theater styles that moves quickly and leaves a good, solid impression of the cast’s abilities.
Usually a new company picks a crowd-pleasing, well-known production to herald its arrival. As far as their choice of material goes, Little City prefers to do their own thing — please themselves and hopefully take a few like-minded audience members with them.
“We’re doing what we want to do for our own enjoyment,” says co-founder Ralph Prentice Daniel. “We’re taking it slow and low key.” The mop-haired Daniel isn’t set on packing the house every night. “If we touch five people and give them a new experience, we’ll be happy.”
Fortunately for the rest of us, Little City picked Broadway composer Jason Robert Brown’s first musical to have their fun with. Brown’s better known for The Last Five Years and the Tony Award-winning Parade. In most of his work, each song is like a mini-play of its own — perfect for young performers who want to highlight their individual skills.
Songs for a New World, written while Brown was still a teenager, is no exception. It opens on the deck of a sailing ship, with the company hoping and praying for a better life in a new-found land. Daniel handles the characteristically demanding vocals as a warbling Christopher Columbus, blasting the audience with miked-up notes that are carefully balanced with a trio of musicians. In the intimate setting of the South of Broadway Theatre, the music is just loud enough to enthrall audience members without blowing their ears off.
The second song flips to present day, trading drama for comedy with “Just One Step.” Cara Dolan (another company founder) plays a lady on a ledge, a desperate hausfrau who seeks attention through attempted suicide. Dolan’s obviously very comfortable with comedy, and she handles it well, making the number one of the most effective in the show.
Christina Yap receives a letter from a lover in “I’m Not Afraid of Anything,” balancing her strong singing (she’s a classically trained opera singer) with convincing characterization. The fourth Little City founder Adam Johnston also creates a convincingly screwed up character in “She Cries.”
Thanks to their strong personalities, the cast members bring coherence to what could otherwise be a stripped-down song cycle. There are no costume changes, no character names, a scant few lines of dialogue, and the underlying theme is loose even for a musical: the paths that we choose make us who we are, and if we take the wrong one, we risk forgetting where we’ve come from.
Hardly original stuff, but Songs did premiere in the same year that brought us Waterworld and Pogs. Long after its sell-by date should have expired, this show still works thanks to the enthusiasm of the performers, musical director Robbi Kenney, and musicians Michael Hamf, Jeremy Wolf, and Ben Wells.
Enthusiasm can only get them so far, of course. Daniel and Yap are the most proficient singers, and even they miss a couple of notes. Johnston’s posturing would work on a large stage but looks unsubtle here. The contemporary costumes are unflattering. And toward the end of act two, “Flying Home” lacks its potential power. The song fails to engage the audience despite its dead-on musings on mortality. That motif also comes across as heavy-handed in its staging; to make sure we understand the whole death thing, there’s a gravestone and a dying Civil War soldier heading for a bright-lit doorway.
Complaints aside, this show’s recommended for all lovers of raw, modern musical theater. All four of the performer-founders worked on Charleston Stage’s Beauty and the Beast, and they mix that company’s technical ability with their own zest for the musical genre. They make the most of their rented theater space — South of Broadway has a modest stage and minimal lights, but they still manage to evoke settings like a Spanish sailing ship, a jail cell, and a gathering place for hobos.
Yap is a long-time acquaintance of SOB’s owner Mary Gould; she helped to open the theater five years ago. So it’s understandable that she would want to kick off Little City’s season there. But SOB’s location has always been problematic. North Chuck just isn’t the must-go place for theater buffs — at least, not yet. Little City might consider moving where the action is — downtown. In any event, by maintaining quality and targeting an audience, Daniel and friends should be able to sustain a company.