Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: ‘Songs for a New World’ distinctive, artistic in Sheboygan

Critic At Large

Sheboygan Theatre Company

Program covers. (Warren Gerds)

SHEBOYGAN, Wis. (WFRV) – It’s one thing to put on a show. It’s another to take command of a show.

The latter is happening with Sheboygan Theatre Company’s “Songs for a New World” as the company returns from the grips of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Much is created specifically for the production that is continuing for six more performances in Leslie W. Johnson Theatre, which has special needs and possibilities.

What is happening is more than a presentation of songs by Jason Robert Brown. Those songs don’t tell one story but a series of stories that turn around people at a yes/no/maybe moment in life or thought.

More happens than four performers singing and acting.

Woven in is movement featuring two dancers. Sometimes the singer/actors are part of the weave of movement, too. The dancers sometimes mirror on another’s movements. Sometimes the six performers add unison percussive elements.

Everyone performs barefoot, except for three players in one scene – to go along with a basketball player’s story.

Everyone wears off-white, plain clothing. It’s reminiscent of a peasant look, or homespun.

The dominant color of the performance floor is gray, except for white edges.

The theater has an amphitheater-like feel in the area for the audience, which looks on a combination of performance spaces. Closest is a half-circle with the gray floor with a few steps on either side. In the rear on a flat-front stage is a built configuration with, below, a skeletal framed area for the six members of the orchestra and, above, an arcing staircase and ramp leading to an open deck with a suggestion of a balcony to the audience’s right. The look of this space is specific to Sheboygan Theatre Company’s production of “Songs for a New World.”

The whole aura of the production is high-concept artistry.

Much of that likely lies with Amanda Ellis, the hired-in stage director who also has blended in much of the choreography. Amanda Ellis has directed before for Sheboygan Theatre Company, so she knew the demands of the space. She took command of it, likely with collaborative ideas, too.

All this was a treat on opening night Friday – except that the sound was badly out of balance for the first half of the performance. The orchestra overwhelmed the singers. Colorful voices and words were tattered. Understanding the experiences of the person or persons singing was a frustrating struggle.

Adjustments were made at intermission, and vocal clarity came out; the listening struggles eased a lot.

The show is a big-think project. The characters are complex and at a demanding point in their life, including sailing to a new world, sewing the flag for a new nation built on sacrifice and envisioning better by way of basketball. Jason Robert Brown has a way of aural portraiture that draws on jazz here, melancholy ballad there and rat-a-tat spitfire note-making there.

The signature song, “The New World,” lies warmly and invitingly on the ear. The song is used in segues, bringing another character to a moment of truth – or hoped-for truth.

Ava Childs is featured in sensitive songs, Jon Delray in those of force, Evan Vorpahl in youthful flair and Kathleen Erdmann in explosive energy.

Each singer has wow moments. The wow-est are two by Kathleen Erdmann, one of which was wrecked in the first half. In “Just One Step” in the first act, she’s threatening her husband with a leap from a balcony – acting/singing like all get out. In the second act, the “like all get out” applies to Mrs. Santa Claus, who is ticked off at Nick for leaving her alone on Christmas Eve, again.

The dancing adds enriching layers. It’s beautiful. It flows. It’s also demanding as many times Holly Green and Autumn Schultz apply the same flowing moves in different areas of the performing space. At times, the two blend in with the singers, creating an image of a picture in motion.

This production also is being livestreamed. In person, the audience can capture the wholeness of this creation of a complex thought work that is specific to this company and space.

What’s happening is distinctive – when the sound level is right.

***

Creative: Songs and lyrics – Jason Robert Brown; director/choreographer – Amanda Ellis; assistant choreographer – Holly Green; music director – John Tengowski; production stage manager – Jackie Blindauer; assistant stage manager – Kim Koeppen; scenic designer – Nan Gibson; costume designer – Cheryl Feld; lighting designer – Lisa Stewart; assistant lighting designer – Valerie Hoffman; spot operator – Dan Hennell, Katie O’Regan; sound designer – Matthew Brulla; assistant sound designer/board operator – Hilarie Mukavitz; properties crew chief – Lisa Masbruch; master painter – Nan Gibson; master carpenter – Phil Zimmerman; hair/make-up designer – Cathy Perronne

Cast:

Woman 1 – Ava Childs

Man 1 – Jon Delray

Woman 2 – Kathleen Erdmann

Man 2 – Evan Vorpahl

Dancer 1 – Holly Green

Dancer 2 – Autumn Schultz

Orchestra: John Tengowski (music director/piano), Sandy Kasten (violin), Paula Harder (auxiliary percussion), Jake Puestow (guitar), Johnny Montenz (drums), William DeBlaey (bass)

Running time: One hour, 40 minutes

Remaining performances: In person and livestreamed at 7:30 p.m. Oct. 2; 2 p.m. Oct. 3; 7:30 p.m. Oct. 7-8; 2 and 7:30 p.m. Oct. 9

Info: stcshows.org.

***

Songs

Act I

“The New World” – Company

“On the Deck of a Spanish Sailing Ship, 1492” – Man 1 and Company

“Just One Step” – Woman 2

“I’m Not Afraid of Anything” – Woman 1

“The River Won’t Flow” – Man 1, Man 2, Company

“Transition I” – Woman 1

“Stars and the Moon” – Woman 2

“She Cries” – Man 2

“The Steam Train” – Man 1 and Company

Act II

“The World Was Dancing” – Man 2, Woman 1 and Company

“Surabaya-Santa” – Woman 2

“Christmas Lullaby” – Woman 1

“King of the World” – Man 1

“I’d Give It All for You” – Man 2 and Woman 1

“Transition II” – Man 1

“The Flagmaker, 1775” – Woman 2

“Flying Home” – Man 1 and Company

“Final Transition: The New World” – Company

“Hear My Song” – Company

***

NEXT: “Elf The Musical,” Dec. 3-11.

THE VENUE: The 870-seat Leslie W. Johnson Theatre in Horace Mann Middle School is a one-of-a-kind theater space for Northeastern Wisconsin. Its layout creates special demands that can lead to rewards in unique theatergoing. The spacious facility is in the shape of an amphitheater with steep stairways. The seats are red. The ceiling is high. The front row of seats is on the performance level, which is a half circle. A proscenium (flat front) stage area extends across the rear line of the half circle. The school was built in 1970. The aura of the lobby and theater combined is that of a community gathering place.

THE PEOPLE: Leslie W. Johnson was a Sheboygan superintendent of schools. Horace Mann (1796-1859) was a leader in the development of public education in the United States, including the teaching of teachers.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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