Village’s ‘Songs’ Attempts a Lot — Leaving Little Up to the Audience

Village Theatre’s latest production boasts strong performers, but its staging attempts too much. Songs for a New World runs through February 13 in Issaquah, followed by a run in Everett through March 13. Plus: next month, check out a new musical from Village’s talented teenagers. 

 

Songs for a New World is full of disappointment, and that’s by design — it’s at the core of many of the story lines that make up Jason Robert Brown’s “abstract musical,” in which each song presents new character sketches and a new miniature tale.

The beauty of this rather open format is it allows a viewer to grasp the general sense of longing and apply it to whatever’s going on in their own life (whether observations, experiences, or an overall sense of the world); and, from there, arrive at some sort of a hopeful place by the end (with “Hear My Song”). Essentially, you can load whatever you want onto the songs, untethered to any particular character, and let the beautiful vocals and instrumentation do their thing.

In that respect, it’s not unlike Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris. Back in 2015, the ACT Theatre and 5th Avenue Theatre co-production of Jacques Brel was so engrossing for two main reasons: the performers were excellent, and the beautiful but minimalist design stepped back and let the songs speak for themselves, in whatever head space the viewer was to receive them.

Now back to Songs. There’s a lot to like in Village’s production, and it’s all in the performers. Maria Habeeb’s voice rings powerfully on its own. All four performers (Tyler Dobies, Habeeb, Alexandria J. Henderson, and Cal Mitchell) harmonized beautifully. A veteran of Village’s stage (Dreamgirls, Hairspray, Beta Series productions), Henderson always brings a powerful voice, but here she got to show off her comedy chops as well. Two of her solo songs — “Just One Step” and “Stars and the Moon” — include welcome humorous interludes, even as they too center on the narrator’s disappointment (with men and wealth); and Henderson nails both the humor and the songs. But the surprise achievement might just be when her physical comedy steals a scene without uttering a line.

While the singers shine, the staging of Songs takes the attention off both the performers and the stories. Eschewing the abstract of the “abstract musical,” Village’s version uses floor-to-ceiling projections, a new full setting every six minutes, and a dizzying amount of quick changes. All of these things are nice to look at. But for this show, it’s a heavy-handed approach that tries mightily to drown out the skills of the performers. It also leaves little for the audience to do.

Rather than dealing in the abstract, this staging, directed by Devanand Janki, conceives of each piece as befitting specific circumstances, and beams them onto viewers with hyper-realistic staging and imposing projections.

 

There’s a lot going on in Village Theatre’s ‘Songs for A New World’. Photos by Gabriel Corey.

 

Typically I’m all about bringing the world into the theatre — hard-hitting topics, incisive commentary wrapped up in the drama, twists on classics highlighting their sustained relevance. But in this case, the heavy-handed attempt to do that resulted in a product that is at once too deep (all sad, no escapism) and too shallow (surface-level application).

When the audience is allowed to mine the depths (and shallows) of a song, it’s easy for it to resonate in whatever way feels right. When we’re beat over the head with a specific meaning, however, (1) there’s not much room left for reflection, and (2) it can feel rather forced.

That was the case throughout the production here. In one example: “Steam Train,” a song that’s essentially about longing and ambition told through bravado, is staged here as a baller with his face plastered on the cover of every magazine. The journey is over; he’s already arrived. This feels dangerously close to a Shaq music video tinged with a “tak[ing] my talents to South Beach” publicity grab.

In others, the ever-changing set and projections dominate so much that the story simply gets lost. “The Flagmaker,” in which mothers fear their sons will not return from war, is applied to Black mothers’ fear that their Black sons will not return home from any day in America. But here again the projections — floor-to-ceiling photo montages — overpower the stage, the story, the song. The shifting of Botham Jean to his mother was a particularly powerful image; and perhaps it’s crucial to present the idea of “one of many.” But at the same time … is it? The wrenching of one mother’s loss is the emotional hook to sit with; and I know I can’t be the only one whose attention was diverted away from that feeling by trying to put a name to all the photos.

The first moments of the show — from a pre-show Indigenous land acknowledgement into an enormous projection of what appear to be three colonizers’ ships — set a tone of “what an ugly history our country has.” I expected the show to do something with that information. Instead, following that bold and rather jarring opening, it pinged all over the place like a pinball — neither sustaining a lasting message nor allowing me to embrace escapism, settle in, and enjoy the show.

 

Also at Village … 

Over the years, Village has done exceptionally well at casting great talent (like that seen here in Songs) and crafting high-quality new musicals. Its mainstage series, which often includes Village-grown new musicals (The Noteworthy Life of Howard Barnes, String, Million Dollar Quartet), is most widely known and attended. But there’s more creative action buzzing on their smaller stages for smaller audiences: Beta Series productions, the Village Originals series, and even the new musicals crafted by talented teenagers in the KIDSTAGE programs. (Read NWT’s interview with the creators of a Beta Series production musical here.)

Before you knock youth productions, take note — Sincerely Yours, created by the KIDSTAGE Originals cohort in 2017, remains one of the best new musicals I’ve seen on any stage. And so I was pleased to see the program back in action with a weekend of public performances for the latest KIDSTAGE Originals product, called I’m Doing This — described as an “interwoven narrative musical” about an apartment building full of strivers, exploring “what it means to be human and on the cusp of greatness.” It’s hard to predict these with any certainty, but it sounds like a good show to me. It runs February 4-6 in Everett.


Songs For a New World  runs through 2/13 at Village Theatre in Issaquah; it then moves to the Everett Performing Arts Center (in downtown Everett) and runs 2/18-3/13. Tickets up to $77, available hereAccessibility notes: restrooms are multi-stall and gendered; theatre and common areas are wheelchair accessible. Financial accessibility note: $20 rush tickets for Section B seats available to all, one hour before showtime; see details here.

I’m Doing This  (KIDSTAGE Originals staged reading) runs 2/4-6 at Village Theatre’s Cope Gillette Theatre in Everett. Tickets $17, available hereAccessibility notes, if I recall correctly: restrooms are single-stall and gender-neutral, and theatre and common areas are wheelchair accessible.

Chase D. Anderson is Editor & Producer of NWTheatre.org.