A beginning -- whether it be a new relationship, a realization or a step into the unknown -- is always exciting. Beyond the novelty, there's the sense that anything could happen. The Vermont premiere of Songs for a New World explores that territory in a minimalist "musical" that lives up to both its musical and dramatic potential.
Composer Jason Robert Brown wrote Songs for a New World after Parade, his Tony Award-winning Broadway musical based on the true tale of a man wrongly convicted of murder. Unlike Parade, though, Songs for a New World is not a full-length narrative. Think of it "as an evening of 15 one-act pieces," suggests producer Peter Boynton, who is also a member of the five-person cast. Each number tells its own story while speaking to an overriding theme of beginnings, change and transformation.
The setting for this show is idyllic: Behind the Skinner Barn stage, three windows look out on the ski slopes of Sugarbush and Mad River Glen, and pinpricks of light show through the barn's wood slats. Inside, the set is quite plain: All that adorns the stage are three natural-wood platforms laid out in an inverted "U" shape. Lighting, designed by Bob Wolff, is simple and effective. Costumes follow this same trend; the five cast members are all dressed in black. Such spare staging allows for maximum technical flexibility -- an advantage, given that Brown's songs are set in places as diverse as the deck of a Spanish galleon and the North Pole.
It also asks a lot from the actors and, for the most part, they deliver. Boynton and Wendy Fuller build convincing romantic tension in "I'd Give It All for You," a charming love song about a couple starting over again. They begin the song in opposite corners of the stage, and slowly work their way toward each other. The song begs for a "happily ever after" ending; Boynton and Fuller play it up by waiting to reach out and hold hands until both the lights and the last notes are fading.
This piece pairs two actors with rather different resumes. You might have seen Boynton on CBS's daytime drama "As the World Turns." He was also in the Broad-way revival of She Loves Me. Fuller is a life-long Vermonter with Lyric Theater, Stowe Theatre Guild and other local dramatic credits. The two work together here beautifully.
All five cast members are involved in "On the Deck of a Spanish Galleon" -- a prayerful song about a voyage to the New World. While Wayne Hobbs takes the tenor part of the captain, director Danielle Sertz enlists the other cast members to act as background characters. Sometimes they serve to illustrate a lyric, as when one of the actors cradles a prop "baby." Alternately, they offer abstract, dance-like movements meant to suggest, for example, waves -- a good idea that, unfortunately, suffered from half-hearted execution.
Despite the lack of narrative connecting tissue, Sertz manages some elegant transitions between songs. At the end of the lively "The River Won't Flow," four cast members gang up on Andrea Bonamico and back her into a corner. When the song ends and those four continue offstage, Bonamico launches seamlessly into a poignantly rendered "Christmas Lullaby."
On a decidedly different Noël note, "Sarubaya-Santa" features Judy Milstein as a soon-to-be-separated Mrs. Claus. She makes the most of comic lines like, "Nick, I saw you look at Blitzen long and lovingly, the way you used to look at me." Milstein has experience as an improvisational actor, including work with The Groundlings, L.A.'s oldest comedy troupe. Her vampish, girl-on-piano attitude gets the audience laughing even before she opens her mouth.
The cast of Songs for a New World is assisted by three talented musicians. Like Boynton, musical director and keyboardist Jono Mainelli has Broadway credits: He's played in the pit orchestras of Beauty and the Beast and Grease. He's accompanied by Peter Williams on bass and Cody Sargent on a variety of percussion instruments, from which he simulates the sound of sleigh bells.
Even without the Christmas stuff, this show rates on the risky side of summer theater. After all, it's a spectacle-free musical without a tangible plot. This talented group of actors makes it compelling. And they can sing, too.