Saturday 25 March 2017

Songs For a New World haunt & honour our extreme 1st world good fortune
All the basic condition theatre requires is that fire last night & those costumes 
& the human voice & people gathered together.  
Sir Trevor Nunn, Director (Cats, 1981 \ Les Miserables, 1985)

Cast of SFANW reveals what the new world in Canada looks like in 2017.

From the footlights : First "the new world" of 1492 : Spain puts Columbus to sail and simultaneously expels all its Jews. In Canada and USA, indigenous native original migrants here in settlements from 10,000 years back face disease, war and cultural genocide. Centuries later would come Dvorak's New World symphony. Then Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. The fall of the Berlin wall follows, and a mere decade later the so-called Arab Spring. Here we are, now, in yet another "new world order". The expression has indeed had many versions and iterations. And not all of them positive. 

In the hands of musicman Jason Robert Brown, Songs for a New World is a set of some 17 songs + a couple of "transitions" around the theme of change. Change in the sense of cataclysm -- change events after which one faces breathtaking circumstances : a whole new world of needs, demands, challenges for better or for worse.

In announcing SFANW to BLR back in February, Fabulist Theatre co-artistic producer Damon Jang wrote : "SFANW is...a collection of songs strung together by the central theme of life (being) about one moment, taking a step, and hopeful optimism toward a brighter future."

How it's all put together : Normally SFANW is performed by just four actors donning various persona throughout the show. Fabulist Theatre co-founders Mary Littlejohn and Damon Jang, however,  have created a clever "re-imagination" : "We have expanded the cast to 16, ranging in age from 11-62, making it immigrant-focused and reflecting our own diverse cultures and communities here in Canada and the United States. We have even made the only straight love duet between two men."

Fabulist embellishes on the concept : "SFANW is a rare kind of show, neither a musical nor a revue, but a song cycle exploring immigration, war, motherhood, poverty, and the singular moments that transform our lives." 

Four musical predecessors jump immediately to mind : Kurt Weill, Jacques Brel, Bob Fosse and Stephen Sondheim. Songs of purpose. Songs of protest. Songs of hurt. Songs of reconciliation. That the script is most often produced by college and community theatre groups connects it to other similar favourites such troupes regularly perform like Joseph & the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat or Annie

What makes his show work : Not having seen a production of SFANW with but four actors playing all the roles, I have nothing to compare. But I can imagine. The choice to expand the cast and flesh out scenes with 11 additional actors and harmonies and costumes and staging was inspired. The choreography or "musical staging" as Damon Jang calls could not help but add visual depth and breadth to a spare, 4-person performance, no question.

Many of the songs highlight military moments. Taken together they are redolent of Buffy Ste. Marie's iconic "Universal Soldier" theme. The other leitmotif, understandably, involved invocations of The Almighty. In the world's most active conflicts today that have direct religious connections, another Canadian songster Danny Michel is brought to mind via his plaintive ironic ballad "If God's on your side / Who's on mine?" 

Tying it all together, Anne Meeson's eye for costumes brought this 20-year-old script into today's world with good visual effect. The projected images shot up on the overhead screen were adroit and ept -- everything from burning teepees in native villages to shots of Syrian refugees en masse to the recent women's protests where they sported pink pussy hats and stars-&-stripe burkas.  

Performance pin-spots : Generally, it is Act II where the musical numbers show off both Mr. Brown's and the cast's talents the best. The two males whose voices stood out the most were Aerhyn Lau and Frankie Cottrell (whose "King of the World" was superb), while Isabella Halladay and Cheryl Mullen were probably the strongest women's songsters. (Mullen's "Surabaya Santa" was some necessary comic relief interjected into the show by Mr. Brown : she was simply delightful as Mrs. Claus bidding ol' Nick good-bye from a lonely marriage.)

The tight PAL stage makes live music a disadvantage, in a way, because it is difficult to mute live instrument accompaniment particularly when limited budget would not permit mic'ing up the actors. That said, I was wholly impressed both with Angus Kellet's musical direction and his piano prowess, while for his part Will Friesen finessed his drum-set well : no irritating woodchopping, nicely subtle stuff.

Who gonna like : The words that sprang to mind watching this show were three : earnest & ingenious & charming. With newcomer talent alongside more seasoned performers -- coupled with the technical drawback of the singers not being mic'd  -- the show presents somewhat unevenly in vocal projection and confidence, particularly. 

The fact of Jason Robert Brown's ear for tuneful songs coupled with good blocking direction and choreography make this a pleasurable outing where Vancouver theatre fans can witness up-&-coming talent as they test out their chops. Not 100% slick & polished & expert, Fabulist Theatre's inaugural production nevertheless holds promise of an exciting future for cast and production team both. 

Particulars :  Produced by Fabulist Theatre [inaugural production]. Music & Lyrics by Jason Robert Brown.  From March 23-April 1. At PAL Theatre, 8th Floor, 581 Cardero Streeet. Tickets $28 / $24 students & seniors. Tickets available @ Brown Paper Tickets.

Production team :  Directed by Mary Littlejohn and Damon Jang [Fabulist's co-founders].  Musical staging by Damon Jang.  Music Director Angus Kellett.  Stage Manager Jasmin Sandu.  Costume Designer Anne Meeson. 

Performers :  Frankie Cottrell,  Michael Czyz.  Allyson Fournier.  Isabella Halladay.  Maria Herrera. Damon Jang.  Rema Kibayi.  Aerhyn Lau.  Kate MacColl.  Cheryl Mullen.  Arta Negahbah.  Regi Nevada.  Charity Principe.  Shina Likasa.  Arielle Tuliao.  

Addendum #1 :  Jason Robert Brown plopped himself in New York City when he was just 20. He was determined to write Broadway musicals. But of course he had to do the preliminaries. So he took up saloon-singing, just like Billy Joel's iconic piano man. 

In an expansive look at Brown in his book Rebels With Applause : Broadway's Groundbreaking Musicals (1999), musical history explorer Scott Miller tells how Brown got to chatting up a gal who kept coming back time after time to take in his saloon schtick. Her name was Daisy Prince. Who just happened to be the daughter of Broadway director / producer / impressario Hal Prince. Talk about slipping the lines and sailing to a new world!

Ms. Prince helped Brown piece together the show over the course of a few years. Gradually a kind of theme emerged to link old tunes Brown had written with the new ones designed just for the embryonic show. It was first performed off-Broadway in 1995. 

When SFANW was released as a musical album by RCA Masterworks in 1997, the liner notes declared : "It's about hitting the wall and having to make a choice, or take a stand, or turn around and go back." Wiki cites a source that describes the play as "an abstract musical, a series of songs all connected by a theme : 'the moment of decision'."

Fabulist Theatre co-artistic producer told Postmedia's Shawn Connor this week : "There's one song called Just One Step that's usually done by a sort of over-the-top older Jewish lady. We had a few options to cast it traditionally. But the best person for the part turned out to be this woman named Charity Principe. She's Canadian with Filipino ancestry. We got to ask, Why can't this character be Filipino. There's no reason. That number in particular is a new way of doing it."

Addendum #2 : Personal reflections. Fifty years ago I became an emigre to this country with my first family : daughter 6 months old, son in the womb to arrive 6 months later. 25 years later, a second family included a new daughter, adopted from T'bilisi in the Republic of Georgia, an ex-Soviet Union satellite. Thus I know intimately on more than one level over the years what a "new world" looks like and how heart-stopping it can be to go there. 

In my Canadian citizenship swearing-in group, meanwhile, there were 82 of us. From 23 (!) countries of birth -- almost one different country for every three seats. Of the 82, there were eight Caucasians, five of them from one family from Denmark. The rest were, to use the expression, "people of colour". At our family \ friend brunch celebrating afterward, among the six of us we discovered : two 2nd generation Canadians. One 1st generation Canadian. Three immigrants. We concluded this is a young and diverse country indeed.

Addendum #3 : Song-list, descriptors supplied by Fabulist Theatre program + Wiki.

Act I

"Opening Sequence: The New World".  The company sings of the evening's central theme: that even when everything seems stable and certain, there is "one moment" that can upend and change anyone's life. Set at various airports, various times.

"On the Deck..." – On the voyage to an undiscovered country on a boat in the Pacific Ocean.

"Just One Step" – Wife climbs out onto the window ledge of her 57th-story apartment in an attempt to get her neglectful husband Murray's attention.

"I'm Not Afraid of Anything" – A young woman reflects on the fears of the people she loves, and comes to realize how they have held her back. Backdrop insurgent-controlled territory, Somalia.

"The River Won't Flow" – The cast swap stories of woe and ill luck, concluding that for some, bad luck is just fate. DTES Vancouver.

"Stars and the Moon" – Recounting the stories of two poor suitors and the rich man she eventually marries, a woman comes to realize what she has sacrificed in exchange for wealth and comfort. A Shaughnessy mansion with a soldier in camou as foil.

"She Cries" – A man describes the power the women seem to have over men.

"The Steam Train" – A teenager from a poor neighborhood in New York boasts of his future as a basketball star. The Bronx, various locations.

Act II

"The World Was Dancing" –  Tells the story of how a young man's father bought, then lost, a store, and how the experience influenced his decision to leave his fiancĂ©e for his gay lover. A party at Princeton University.

"Surabaya-Santa" – In a parody of the Kurt Weil torch song Surabaya Johnny, Mrs. Claus sings a scornful, teutonic kiss-off to her neglectful husband Nick. The North Pole.

"Christmas Lullaby" – A woman reacts with wonder and joy to the discovery of her pregnancy, comparing herself to The Virgin Mary. Lapu Lapu, Philippines.

"King of the World" -- A man demands that he be freed from prison and returned to his rightful place as a leader. A North Dakota prison.

"I'd Give It All for You" – A pair of former lovers reunite after attempting to live without each other. The men meet at an unnamed American airport.

"The Flagmaker, 1775" – Betsy Ross, whose husband and son fight in the Revolutionary War, sews the  flag she designed with anger and a bit of contempt while attempting to keep her hope alive and her house standing.

"Flying Home" – A soldier, who has died in battle, sings as his body is flown home to his mother and he crosses over to another life. Kandahar, Afghanistan. [Canadians killed 2001 - 2009 : 159. Wounded in battle : 615.  Non-battle injuries : 1,244.]

"Final Transition: The New World". A Canadian airport.

"Hear My Song".  The company, as if singing a lullaby to a child, express their hope that they have gained by experiencing hardship and how they have gained strength from each other. A Syrian refugee camp in Greece.


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