Tag Archives: Jason Robert Brown

“13” at the Ambassadors Theatre

Performed by students of the British Theatre Academy, this musical about turning 13 has the distinction of featuring actors who are all that age or less.

Director and choreographer Ewan Jones has shaped his young charges expertly and all involved should be proud of their professionalism. I couldn’t spot any fumbles – let alone nerves. Even the most obvious failing is charming: the children haven’t entirely learned to deal with an audience’s response and don’t take account of frequent laughter or riotous applause.

The show itself, with a book by Dan Elish and Robert Horn, uses standard school drama tropes and coming of age lessons. New boy Evan, a huge leading role for the talented Milo Panni, has to work out which group he belongs to, with the added pressure of organising his bar mitzvah, while learning about himself – and love – along the way.

The Academy wasn’t taking the soft option when it chose this age-specific piece. The lyrics are ambitious, the musical genres wide referencing. These songs are not easy to perform. Unlike most musicals for younger voices, fewer songs have support from the whole cast, and there are no adults to carry numbers. It is a struggle for some, and the different maturity of boys and girls is noticeable: Chloe Endean and Isabella Pappas, competing for romance with the school jock, are more advanced vocally, and Madeline Banbury, as Evan’s love interest, shows stand-out acting skills.

The best reason to choose the show is that it is from musical mastermind Jason Robert Brown – any opportunity to see his work should not be missed. Showing his usual wit and intelligence, his strong collection of songs will please any age group. The majority are funny, with jokes for grown-ups that add appeal (the school in question is Dan Quayle Junior High). The show is warm, open and inclusive – qualities Jones appreciates perfectly. There’s no patronising audience or performers here, which makes this a production that’s good for more than the family and friends of its talented cast.

Until 23 August 2017

www.theambassadorstheatre.co.uk

Photo by Roy Tan

“Songs For A New World” at the St James Theatre

Jason Robert Brown is a composer known for his clever musicals and skilled songwriting, both evident in Adam Lenson’s 20th anniversary revival of his first work, Songs For A New World. A song cycle, rather than ‘proper’ musical, it has numbers set in distant ages and places, mixed with those about relationships that could be from any time and anywhere. The songs are connected by a moment when a life changes and a character develops. Startling and original, it’s the music’s instant appeal and variety, rather than the concept, that is the real highlight.

Lenson has some nice touches to suggest the fluidity the show aims for, but he never distracts attention from the performers – wise, as the four stars on stage are truly stellar. They sound better singing solo than as a group, but their voices are fantastic. First the boys – Damian Humbley and Dean John-Wilson – with songs of depression and ambition, often linked by the mistakes of fathers, perfectly delivered. Then Cynthia Erivo, who sounds appropriately heavenly as a woman who sings about her pregnancy and has a wonderful stage presence. But since I’m such a fan, Jenna Russell was my favourite, with the show’s funniest numbers: a suicidal rich bitch and the desperate wife of Santa Claus.

Yet even with performances like these, it’s frustrating to hunt for themes and connections when you really just want to enjoy the music. Songs For A New World feels like a collection of musicals waiting to break out rather than its bolder aim of something abstract. You want each song to develop – they sound so great. And each character introduced is one you want to know better. A surfeit of talent perhaps, the piece is more a soundtrack to love than a show to see.

Until 8 August 2015

www.stjamestheatre.co.uk

Photo by Darren Bell