JASON ROBERT BROWN is something of a deity in the musical theater world. He's one of the best contemporary composers/lyricists working today, heralded as the Stephen Sondheim of a new generation. For those who don't know much about musical theater, the name may ring a faint bell, but probably doesn't resonate as anything noteworthy. And if you're living in Portland, Oregon, where "music" and "theater" are two words that usually only make passing acquaintance in sentences regarding which venue the current buzz-worthy band is playing, you probably haven't heard of Mr. Brown. But here's the thing, Portland: You should get to know him.
Lucky for you, Staged! ("Portland's musical theatre series") and the Miracle Theatre Group are giving Portlanders a comprehensive introduction to the Tony Award-winning playwright, with a summer of programming that features a large slice from his body of work. They begin it all with an acoustic and intimate production of Songs for a New World, Brown's first musical and one of his best-known scores.
Songs for a New World isn't a standard narrative musical. The piece uses four actors playing a variety of characters whose songs, stories, and character arcs all wrap together into an overarching theme. Brown's primary focus here is transference, the moments when life's events come to a crux and an inevitable future is embraced.
The play has little dialogue and acts as more of a musical revue, highlighting moments of transition and discovery in each character's life. The genre-spanning music (soul, gospel, lounge, jazz, adult contemporary) is moving, and Mr. Brown has written refreshingly well-formed and compelling lyrics, something that's often lost in large-scale musicals.
The four actors in the Miracle Theatre/Staged! production—David Cole, Elizabeth Klinger, Vin Shambry, and Rebecca Teran—are clearly full of love for this show. There is a very evident passion in each of their performances, and it's hard to not be swept away by their earnestness and charm. There are points at which it seems the vocal range demanded by Brown's score is too challenging for some cast members, but these performers have enough emotional drive to win the audience back over. Jamie M. Rea's thoughtful and precise direction keeps the show at an even pace, and musical director/pianist Eric Nordin is a force all on his own when put behind the piano. The production rings out as a successful and heartfelt endeavor, a musical without any of the kitsch, corniness, or spectacle of a 42nd Street-style show.
Staged! and Miracle Theatre Group's Jason Robert Brown extravaganza will be in full swing this weekend, with the man himself coming to town for a special live concert on Sunday, June 27, at Miracle Theatre. The following week, on July 2, Isaac Lamb and Courtney Freed star in a late-night benefit production of Brown's The Last Five Years. And if you still haven't had enough (or if you've got some Glee-loving middle schoolers you want to get out of your hair), Staged! and Miracle will host two theater camps in July and August, focusing on Brown's plays 13 and Parade. Musical theater overkill? Maybe. But at least it's in homage to one of the best musical theater artists of the last two decades.