Songs for a New World

Raleigh Little Theatre
Through May 22

“I’m not trying to philosophize/ I just want to tell a story,” sings one of the characters in Raleigh Little Theatre’s production of Jason Robert Brown’s Songs for a New World. The offbeat collection of songs and characters offers plenty of philosophy in its variety of numbers, though the varied performances don’t always pull off the deeper meanings behind the complex lyrics.

Songs is set against a minimalist backdrop designed to look like a ship; the songs take their cue from moments of chaos interrupting a life while employing the idea of the “New World” as a thematic link. (The opening number, “The New World,” should probably be a standard at high school graduation ceremonies across the country.)

Productions of Songs typically employ four performers for the entire show; this one uses eight, which slightly dulls the effect. When the same actor plays a different character in different numbers, it’s easier to see the thematic connection between the songs and the overall play. Some numbers in this production prove effective, while others might leave the audience confused.

The songs are subject to multiple interpretations, but the staging often doesn’t offer a clear point of view. “The Steam Train,” about a young basketball player’s dreams of glory, is one example. While some spoken-word sections illustrate the singer’s unhappy home life, the overall idea that his aggrandized fantasy life helps him survive this environment fails to coalesce. Neither does the message of “The World Was Dancing,” a callow college student’s tale of learning the wrong lesson from his father’s risks.

The numbers that work best are three performed by Dena Byers, who has the voice and the dramatic chops to sing and play a character at the same time. “Just One Step,” a Sondheim-esque number about a housewife on a ledge, has a darkly comic kick, as does “Surabaya Santa,” a Kurt Weill-like take on a very depressed Mrs. Claus. She also pulls off “The Flagmaker, 1775,” the dark tale of a mother of a Revolutionary War soldier, with a combination of anger and passion.

Songs also suffers some technical difficulties that undercut some numbers (it’s never good when the mic cuts out on the line, “Hear the song that I’m singing”). Though the pieces don’t always add up, there are enough good moments to make this production a World worth visiting.