Musical Melting Pot

Songs for a New World
8pm Thu-Sat; dinner at 6pm
Through Jan 6
$20 show; $39.95 show + dinner
Church Bistro and Theatre

Do you ever wonder what happens to all those songs that are written for musicals that never come to fruition? Do they end up in exile on some mythical Island of Misfit Musical Numbers? Do they spend eternity waiting for someone to finish writing that atonal musical about an agoraphobe who dreams of becoming a gymnast? Or do they simply disappear from memory? Well, sometimes they end up getting slapped together into musical revues and showcases that either make you wonder why anyone would write three songs about an agoraphobic gymnast or why they didn’t write three more and make a go of it.

The Church Theatre’s production of Jason Robert Brown’s Songs for a New World manages to provoke these inquiries with an entertaining and consistently good production that often rises above its uneven material. It’s easy to see why some of these numbers were put out to theatrical pasture, but none of them are embarrassingly bad (well, one of them comes close), and the musicianship and singing are good enough to keep you interested even if the lyrics and composition stray into bland territory.

Take, for instance, the main theme of the evening, “The New World”: It’s pretty, but has such lifeless, generic lyrics that it’s hard to imagine that it would have any resonance even in a specific context. On the other hand, there are numerous character-based songs in this revue that are just good enough to spark a desire to see them drive a story. The music is sometimes late-20th-century Broadway Lite, but the touches of gospel and the numbers influenced by Kurt Weill or John Kander are truly entertaining. Anna Gangai’s rendition of “Surabaya Santa” alone is worth the price of admission. If Brown’s other compositions had the same zest as that novelty number, or the same melodic power of the gospel-ish “The River Won’t Flow,” we’d be in

Instead, many of Brown’s songs lean toward uninteresting tunes — with lyrics to match. If the whole revue had consisted of songs like “The Flagmaker, 1775,” I think I might have begged the ghost of Betsy Ross to pursue Jason Robert Brown into madness for such a crime against music, patriotism, and the American experience.   

But where there’s humor or a spot of genuine emotion, the songs deliver, and these four capable singers and actors can run with the ball and fill in the blanks. The aforementioned Gangai is superb, mining the drama, milking the comedy, and belting the songs with equal measures of skill and abandon.

Ben Gamble’s physicality is a bit stiff at first, but he’s a singer of quality, and his nervous energy and sly comic talent work to his benefit in most of his later numbers. Stephanie Elbel has a beautiful voice, and evokes such vulnerability in her characters that you wish she had a play to match that depth, and Chris Byrd’s remarkable talents keep the show moving and sounding better than some of the music deserves.  

The show holds together so well and moves with such a pleasant pace that the entertainment value of the production more than makes up for the compositional flaws. Diane Malone’s inventive staging makes the show visually stimulating despite the limitations of the spare text and the relatively spare space. (Word to the wise: Sit close enough to the stage so you can comfortably turn around and catch the number that plays behind the audience.) Songs for a New World may not have made it to its original destination, but this production takes it and the audience for an enjoyable tour.