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June 23rd, 2010 BEN WATERHOUSE | Theater
 

Songs For A New World (Staged!)

Hot diggity, can these chaps sing!

     
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VIN SHAMBRY
IMAGE: Russell Young

The title of this 1995 revue by Jason Robert Brown is misleading—although the characters in these 19 songs find themselves in the midst of dramatic realizations, their situations aren’t, for the most part, what I’d call new. Songs for a Cruel World would be more accurate. These are men and women standing at the precipice (literally, in one case), staring down the cold reality they’ve spent years avoiding, and all they can do is sing.

And they sing really, really well. This production, a joint effort by Miracle Theatre Group and Staged! (an education-focused company that occasionally mounts minimalist musicals), features one of the best vocal ensembles I’ve ever seen on a Portland stage. Most of Brown’s songs are written in a style I don’t care for—call it post-Rent virtuosic Broadway pop—but David Cole, Elizabeth Klinger, Vin Shambry and Rebecca Teran make the meandering melodies’ sudden leaps of tempo and volume sound as natural and straightforward as any Rodgers and Hammerstein standard. Brown’s songs vary in interest from delightful (“Surabaya-Santa,” a venomous Dear John from Ms. Claus) to New Agey mush (“Flying Home,” which is either about dying or very religious aviation), but this ensemble sells them all just the same. This is the musical stripped bare: Just one piano and four voices, sans plot, sans synthesized band and especially sans head mics.

A brief rant: At what point was it decreed that every musical production, no matter how small, must make use of these idiotic headsets? I understand their utility—if you’re dancing like mad it’s hard to keep up enough volume to be intelligible to the audience—but I’ve seen the things deployed in sedate, two-person shows in 100-seat venues. This is madness. There’s little more annoying than the distorted echo of an amplified singer in a small space. If you can’t sing over the drums, get an electronic kit. And bless Staged! for giving us natural voices.


SEE IT: Miracle Theatre, 525 SE Stark St., 236-7253. 8 pm Fridays-Saturdays, 2 pm Sundays. Closes July 3. $17-$29. Songs is the main event of Staged!’s summerlong celebration of Brown’s work, which includes a concert by the composer at 7 pm Sunday, June 27. See stagedpdx.org for details.
 
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