Songs for a New World | North Carolina Theatre | Raleigh Memorial Auditorium | Closed Aug. 1

Caution clearly was advisable as North Carolina Theatre tried to finalize plans for its new season early in 2021. It takes nothing for a professional-level production of a big Broadway musical—the Raleigh company’s long-time raison d’etre—to reach six figures and just keep climbing.

Plus, NCT had already taken severe financial hitpoints when the pandemic forced it to go dark two weeks before the scheduled opening of their production of Memphis in March, 2020, after paying out for all pre-production costs without a chance to recoup from ticket sales. A second loss that catastrophic couldn’t be in the cards.

So the company opted to start their new season small, as artistic director Eric Woodall divulged in Saturday night’s curtain speech, with a trial balloon production of Jason Robert Brown’s Songs for a New World, a chamber musical that could be put entirely online with little headache if COVID rates started heading north again (and they have, which is an ill omen for upcoming scheduled live shows here).

Brown’s work checks all the boxes for pandemic-inspired theatrical downsizing. Its cast could fill out a quartet for bridge or doubles tennis, with a band similar in size. Without a conventional plot or locale, the set design’s been jettisoned for a no-frills concert stage. Costuming? Keep Brown’s characters present-day and urban. Then keep your fingers crossed that everyone stays healthy.

Songs for a New World is far from theatrically threadbare, however. Lighting designer Samuel Rushen’s flashy rock-show choices brings the oohs and ahhs before deferring to Joshua Reaves’ atmospheric video backdrops that fill the screen with the communities invoked in Brown’s production—most memorably, an historic cavalcade of immigrants during the evening’s second number, “On the Deck of A Spanish Sailing Ship, 1492”—before returning to a metaphorical ocean panorama at morning, noon, and night.

Still, Songs’ discursive, all but centerless structure stretches the definition of musical theater nearly to breaking point.

True, in most numbers in this 16-song cycle, vivid characters articulate a challenge or a change. Two are historic; in the number cited above, a warm Kyle Taylor Parker portrays a captain whose faith has been sorely tried, while Christine Sherrill’s Betsy Ross-inspired character acidly criticizes the human cost of wars in “The Flagmaker, 1775.”

Elsewhere, contemporary souls confront differing interpersonal crises. In “I’m Not Afraid,” Krystina Alabado’s confident narrator discloses the high price of her fearlessness—an impersonal, interpersonal defense system that will never let anyone in. Parker’s affecting take (with Reaves’ riveting, original film work in the background) gives true hunger to a young Black man, driven to basketball success in “The Steam Train.” And Adam Jacobs and Alabado’s poignant duet in “The World Was Dancing” bears witness to the outcome when love does not conquer fear.

These are leavened by Alabado’s optimism in “Christmas Lullaby,” in which a pregnant woman muses on the potential impact her child could have upon the world. Sherrill provides comic relief in “Surbaya-Santa,” a campy, Marlene Dietrich-styled rave-up that gives “The Night Before Christmas” the Kurt Weill treatment.

Less successful, however, were “She Cries,” which seemed little more than a men’s movement diatribe, and a too-chummy, near-Vegas take on “The River Won’t Flow,” which ignored the song’s subtext of systemic discrimination.

Both came before director Woodall’s vision of “Flying Home,” whose vaguebook lyrics were refashioned into what appeared to be a jingoist armed services recruitment video, abetted by Reaves’s single-sided publicity-grade videography of smiling service people never inconvenienced by wounds, bad weather, or the moral ambiguities of modern warfare.

The artless emotional manipulation in that number made it hard to trust the soulful, and potentially healing closing anthem, “Hear My Song.” These days, any number of people do need a song to “help (them) believe in tomorrow.” For those words to land, however, we have to believe in the ones that came before. Unfortunately, that belief is not fully achieved from an uneven script and production.

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