It’s safe to say that there is no other Milwaukee theater company that would stage “Songs for a New World,” the quirky play that launched the career of Jason Robert Brown in 1995.
It’s an unusual play, written for four singers and 16 songs with no dialogue. There is not story to be told. And not many people in Milwaukee have ever heard about it.
But stage it they did and the no-longer kids of All In Productions have created an evening of both theater and music that is clearly unrivaled this theater season.
AIP (this company has earned the right to just go by letters – ala American Players Theater) opened its fourth season the same way they opened their initial season.
That one was
In 2014 the company lit up the theater sky with a magical production of Mr. Brown’s “The Last Five Years.”Since then the company has had some sterling efforts and a few that were less than sterling.
But with “Songs” there is a confluence of factors that create an evening unlike anything you are likely to see this season, or any other season.
Let’s start with the setting in Redeemer Lutheran Church on Wisconsin Avenue. It’s a spectacular structure, built in 1915 of masonry, brick and dark wood, with a ceiling shaped and constructed like the bottom of a sailing ship, a nod to the immigrant population in the congregation and Milwaukee.
The altar was three white stone steps with a simple wood podium on each side and behind those steps, a five piece band led by keyboardist Tom Reifenberg, who was the music director for the show.
The next thing to hit you is the lighting by Jim Padovano, spilling onto the band and gently moving around the stage, always maintaining a focus on the actors/singers.
And then there are the four cast members and those 16 songs.
This is not your usual musical theater event. These are 16, seemingly disconnected songs. Songs about a Spanish ship captain, a woman crying for attention from her husband, a nervous young girl about to move in with her boyfriend, a man and woman reuniting in friendship and maybe more, Mrs. Claus who has grown tired of the abuse from her mate, and others.
But once things get going, a theme does emerge, one that grips like a vice.
It’s about decisions that come up in life. Do you stay the course, be pushed around, push back, do you run or stand and fight? These are life questions and the songs are a lovely examination of those moments.
It starts with the lovely, tender and fierce Jamie Mercado (Woman 1), alone on the altar. She is soon joined by Man 2 (Patrick Jones).
A new world calls across the ocean
A new world calls across the sky
A new world whispers in the shadows
Time to fly, time to fly
It’s about one moment
The moment before it all becomes clear
And in that one moment
You start to believe there’s nothing to fear
It’s about one second
And just when you’re on the verge of success
The sky starts to change
And the wind starts to blow
And oh, you’re suddenly a stranger
There’s no explaining where you stand
And oh, you didn’t know
That you sometimes have to go
?Round an unexpected bend
And the road will end
In a new world
A new world calls for me to follow
A new world waits for my reply
A new world holds me to a promise
Standing by, standing by
Each of the other two actors also appear in the first song, Laura McDonald (Woman 2) and Indalecio de Jesus Valentin (Man 1 and perhaps the best name of any actor working in Milwaukee).
The second number if Mr. Valentin as a Spanish sailing captain, praying for strength for himself and the welfare of the men and women he will carry to the New World.
Then comes Ms. McDonald hanging from the front of one podium, a woman who has stepped out onto the ledge of her high level apartment in an attempt to get some attention from her n neglectful husband.
And so it goes.
It’s hard to overstate the wonderful details of this production steered by Director Tim Backes who has a delicate touch for a delicate show. Even with a few swound level difficulties on opening night, he has crafted something that is much more than a song, much more than a play much more than a simple story.
The four players all have their own strengths which Backes gives space for flourish.
Mr. Valentin is a brooding heartthrob who has a ringing tenor that climbs to the rafters of the church. When he feels pain, we feel it with him.
Mr. Jones is the everyman who has a wide range of acting abilities. He can be as tender and as tough as anyone I’ve seen on a stage recently.
Ms. Mercado is the waif of the show, mixing doubt and determination into a series of songs that give full range to her lilting soprano.
And then there is Ms. McDonald, both a lover and a beleaguered Mrs. Claus, sick and tired of her Santa. She is a great singer and reminds me of the spectacular Diane Lane, Milwaukee’s best comic singer and actor. She absolutely kills the song as Ms. Claus, milking everything there is in a very clever song.
The song and her performance are so funny, I want to give readers and chance to read all the lyrics.
Everything about this production is further evidence of the maturity of this company that doesn’t talk about doing edgy productions, but just does them in an outstanding manner.
This is a show not to be missed.
Production credits: Director, Tim Backes; Music Director, Tom Reifenberg; Assistant Music Director, Allison Bekolay; Choreographer, Stephanie Staszak; Assistant Director, Adam Qutaishat; Costume Designer, Molly Mason; Technical Director/Lighting Designer, Jim Padovano; Stage Manager, Allison Kasprovich; Production Manager, Beth Lewinski; Production Photographer, Mark Frohna.
Orchestra: Keyboard, Tom Reifenberg; Keyboard 2, Alison Bekolay; Guitar, Liz Parsons; Bass, David Wickert; Drums, Bob Troemel.
And, as promised, the lyrics to Surabaya-Santa
I was just seventeen
When you rode into town
Just a girl full of fantasies and longing
I saw you
I knew I had to be with you
Then you looked in my eyes
And you asked me my name
And I trembled before you like a baby
Then gently I kissed you
Who could resist you?
You took my heart and soul
And before I had a chance to take control
We retired to your palace on the Pole
Where we only had ourselves
And the reindeer and the elves
And a lot of things we never said
About the life I could have led
If I had had the sense to stay away
But here we are Nick
And so Nick
I know it’s time for you to go Nick
I know by now I’ll never claim you for my own
I’ve been resigned to spend my Christmases alone
And so au revoir Nick
It’s grand Nick
I don’t pretend to understand Nick
I saw you look at Blitzen long and lovingly
The way you used to look at me
I have sat twenty years
In this drafty retreat
As the latest in the line of Mrs. Clauses
I’ve sat here
And wondered what you want from me
But you sit by yoursel
On the couch in the den
And you watch “Miracle on 34th Street”
You get sad and dreamy
Can’t even see me
Won’t even say, “Hello!”
Now you tell me that it’s time for you to go
Sling your sack upon your back and “Ho, ho, ho!”
And what matters most of all
Is to sit inside some mall
And you never think of me
While I am pining by the tree
But never mind
I will survive
While you are gone
I set you free, Nick
Go ride your reindeer through the sky, Nick
I don’t suppose you’ll ever want me by your side
I know you now
You want a plaything, not a bride
So on your way, Nick
Don’t feel the need to hurry home, Nick
Should I want comfort in the cold and bitter storm
I’ve got the elves to keep me warm
Oh, oh, Nick, I didn’t mean it. I’m just going crazy all cooped up in here! Oh, Nick, I mean, come on, I’m not even German.
Please take me with you. Please! I’m your wife damn it. Isn’t there one ounce of human decency buried beneath all those layers
of fat? You disgust me! Oh yes, It’s so easy to judge, isn’t it? Deciding who’s naughty and who’s nice? Well, who died and
left you God, Mr. Claus? Hmph.
But never mind, Nick
I hate to keep you from your sleigh, Nick
When you return I will be many miles away
I’ll have my lawyer call your lawyer
New Years Day
That’s all from me, Nick
Gain way, Nick
I’ll miss you less than I can say, Nick
Have fun with all the little boys along the route
I’ll get the mansion and the factory to boot
I will not wait until the snow beneath me thaw
I will escape
Your Santa claws!!