By Anna DeNoia
Those unfamiliar with Theo Ubique’s new home on Howard Street, where it had moved not too long before shutdown, are in for a treat. There are still candles burning on quaint cabaret tables, and there’s still a cozy bar at the back of the house. It’s a suitably intimate space for the company’s style in which the audience and actors are able to get close. The performers turn heads as the action moves to either wall, even hopping atop the bar at times— and how wonderful it is to once again feel that magical audience-actor connection we’ve so deeply missed! This intimacy is perhaps the production’s greatest strength— a credit not only to the space. but to this mighty four-member company whose overflowing joy to be on stage again is absolutely palpable from the get-go.
Songs for a New World was written by then-budding composer-lyricist Jason Robert Brown before crafting gems like Bridges of Madison County and Parade. Fittingly for a starter, Songs for a New World is a song cycle— songs are connected by theme rather than plot. So, rather than following a set group of characters from beginning to end as expected in a conventional musical, each song in Songs tells a story all its own from the perspective of someone new. Each song is even about something new. That is, each song in this cycle is about arriving at a point of choice and change, when, as the opening number states, you find “you’re suddenly a stranger” and “your life is different than you planned.” Poignant, certainly. Needless to say, our world has been transformed enormously since this show first premiered in 1995.
Theo’s production, however, chooses to leave that new world outside its doors. So, while it offers trademark Theo charm, intimacy, and powerhouse singing, this Songs for a New World misses an opportunity to meet its audience in the present moment, seeming to take place outside of any particular place or time. Not that I’m eagerly seeking theatre about the pandemic or its painful hiatus it wrought. Still, I found it impossible to ignore many of the lyrics in Songs for a New World that seem to speak directly to very real grievances.
The show’s Act One closer, “The Steam Train,” tells the story of a young Black man dreaming of a future as a basketball star. While upbeat and optimistic throughout, the song ends with the character stating, near-verbatim, that nearly all of his former fifth grade classmates are either incarcerated or dead. Act Two’s, “King of the World,” performed by the same actor, tells the story of a man imprisoned, singing “I was working for the people, I just wanted to be better, why are we punished for wanting to survive?” Troublingly, Theo’s production doesn’t differentiate these songs in any way from the more comedic numbers, maintaining a uniform quick pace and upbeat energy throughout.
The pretty if nondescript set design along with the rather formal suits the company sport from beginning to end (with the addition of a pair of glasses or a shawl every now and then) provide very few context clues as to which new world each song takes place in. I wouldn’t be surprised if audience members less familiar with the music miss these and other potentially powerful and timely moments completely.
While this production doesn’t quite sink its teeth into each song’s subject matter the way the text might suggest, this vibrant cast still captivates. In a standout performance of “She Cries”, Matthew Hunter employs a masterful balance of levity and earnest frustration, turning his audience in close confidants as he laments feeling stuck in a relationship with a woman who uses her tears to trap. Another highlight is “On The Deck of a Spanish Sailing Ship, 1492,” sung at the opening performance by Eustace J. Williams, who takes impressive ownership of the difficult song with unique and exciting vocal choices— not an easy feat when it comes to Jason Robert Brown’s characteristically complex rhythms.
In all, Theo Ubique’s Songs for a New World makes for a steady night out with some genuine laughs and wonderful music. Time spent in this space and with this cast is an indisputable pleasure, and perfect for those eager to dive headfirst into the once again new world of live theatre.
It just depends on how deep you want to dive.
Songs for a New World runs through October 24th at the Howard Street Theatre, 721 Howard Street, Evanston. For tickets or more information, please call (773) 939-4101 (Wed through Sun; 12 pm through 5 pm) or visit theo-u.com.
Theo Ubique requires all audience members to be fully vaccinated from COVID-19 this season. Photo ID and proof of vaccination (photos or photocopies are acceptable) are required at the door.
Photos by Liz Lauren.