By Katherine Baird
According to its creator Jason Robert Brown, “this show is about one moment. It’s about hitting the wall and having to make a choice, or take a stand, or turn around and go back.” The show is a song-cycle of self-contained songs and stories, depicting the events that have the power to change our lives and identities across varying times and spaces. Without the foundations of plot or dialogue, it is also a performance that relies extremely heavily on the co-ordination of the talents of each performer. Thankfully, the Central Hall Musical Society of the University of York undoubtedly had this on its opening night.
The audience enters Friargate Theatre’s small studio space to find performers already frozen in place, within a cluttered arrangement of various pieces of wooden furniture, scattered notes pages and books. Despite the scope of the settings we eventually encounter in the character’s stories, the set itself feels very domestic, befitting the intimate studio. We are immediately enveloped into their lives and their worlds. Waiting for the show to start fully, each of the many props provided tantalising clues of their possible meaning. I found myself particularly captured by the pages dangling from the ceiling. While I couldn’t make out any of the writing on them, on further inspection the books present varied from classical fiction to a music textbook. Before the lights even fully go up, the audience gets a clear sense of progress and creation in the past and anticipates what is yet to come for us.
Having never seen the show before I had initial apprehension at its opening song (“The New World”), which introduced its theme of life-changing moments as well as its six performers. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from three hour university seminars, it’s that people have perilously short attention spans, and had the entire performance consisted only of the first song’s amazing singing but (mostly) only subtle facial acting or movement, I suspect the audience’s attention would have wandered back to trying to figure just what exactly was written on all those pages hanging from the ceiling. (I did manage to make out some little love hearts on one, which raised more questions than it answered about the rest of what it said). Thankfully, the stellar performance that unfolded proved any concerns I had extremely wrong, and I came to appreciate the first song for its strong and simple skill as an ensemble in contrast with the more flamboyant individual songs that followed.
On a more practical level, when all of the performers were onstage at once, there wasn’t actually any room for them to safely move around much. Artistically, I think the space adds more in the way of intimacy than it takes in restrictive size. However, it has to be appreciated as a significant challenge for the performers and directors. This was proven when a large piece of set was knocked off-balance, which at first (a testament to how sleekly professional the show is as a whole) I thought may have been deliberate in a fit of passion. Until, that piece of set fell into another and sent a precariously balanced coffee mug flying towards one of the keyboard players. (It remains to be seen whether this was a deliberate prop or an oversight on the part of a cast member-it will be interesting to see whether that prop returns in later performances!). Thankfully it missed, and the singers kept trilling over the sound of the mug smashing on the floor, smoothly rearranging the set and remaining admirably calm and collected.
That the keyboard player was present was in itself a notable point of the performance. The brilliant live music was striking in the studio, and though at times it threatened to drown out some of the more softly sung moments, this didn’t happen often and the music was as much an admirable feature of this show as the singing. Additionally, as noted in the programme, the University of York’s technical theatre society provided light and sound, and is seen here as a valuable and promising addition to the university’s societies.
The performers of the Central Hall Musical Society have a long-standing reputation for their talent, and I’m pleased to say that once again this was showcased. I believe this is the first time in the society’s history that a spring show has been put on in an external venue, and Songs For A New World is certainly deserving of that honour. For a start, the singing was very, very impressive. Each voice had vastly different strengths, but also astonishing range and the ability to harmonise together beautifully. In their conquests after university, I have no doubt that each and every performer I saw has the talent to rise through the ranks of professional theatre, and I felt genuinely pleased for the opportunity to see them at this point in their musical careers.
My praise isn’t limited just to the singing, either. Far from a stagnant rendition of songs, the acting succeeded in bringing each character to life and in expressing everything from melancholy to comedy. Each individual owned their places in the spotlight, attentive to the tiniest detail of their facial expression or movement. This expression was essential in defining the piece as a well-rounded theatrical performance, and was perhaps highlighted best by Scarlet Simmons in “Surabaya Santa”. Portraying a furiously spurned young woman, her German accent is described within her own bio as an “attempt” that is likely to provide laughter. However, her unpretentious but skilfully humorous performance was such that the rapturous audience was most definitely not laughing at her, but with her.
On the swell of the show’s concluding number, it received a highly deserved standing ovation from the crowd, who were rewarded with a final and triumphant burst of song. Whether you find yourself in a 57th story apartment with an attention seeking wife, in a poor neighbourhood in New York with its hopeful teens, or with two former lovers reunited, I guarantee that in seeing this show, you will see yourself somewhere in it.
Songs For A New World is running from the 7-9 March at Friargate Theatre. Tickets and times can be found here and programmes can be purchased from the front desk for £2 on the day.