With songs in their hearts, Dallas theaters are making this a summer of melodic storytelling. There's a new musical or three tuning up every week. A trio of tough-to-stage pieces of musical theater just opened at Uptown Players, Theatre Three and Theatre Britain, with varying degrees of success.
In 85 minutes (without intermission) Songs for a New World accomplishes more musically and emotionally than most shows do in three hours. This abstract 15-song "cycle" by composer Jason Robert Brown gets an elegant staging with splendid performances by Uptown Players at Kalita Humphreys Theater. There is no plot to follow, no characters with names, but director Coy Covington and his cast of eight vocal powerhouses create a logical through-line of well-communicated "moments" and transitions of mood.
Each of Brown's songs expresses someone's innermost thoughts at a time of crisis or decision-making. Singer Jonathan Bragg becomes a worried captain on one of Columbus' sailing ships, singing about the arduous journey to the new world. John Campione, crawling from a low door in the tall rotating multilevel set by Rodney Dobbs, becomes a prisoner singing the angry "King of the World" as images of Hitler, Saddam Hussein and other tyrants flash on the curved back wall behind him. (The spectacular visual media design by H. Bart McGeehon helps tie together the "New World" themes. Lighting design by Amanda West complements the continuous flow of pictures. Kevin Gunter's musical direction of the five-piece band keeps the energy moving at a sprightly pace.)
Other songs ruminate over the dilemmas of starting and ending relationships, of having a baby, of facing death at a young age. Walter Lee's passionate singing of "Flying Home" hits home to anyone who's lost someone close and wonders if they'll be there for a reunion on the other side. Sara Shelby-Martin, Peter DiCesare, Laura Lites, Danielle Estes and Feleceia Benton all have solos to shine in during the haunting, deeply engaging Songs for a New World.