Blue mountains gently peaked in the stage’s backdrop, a bunch of see-through liners outlined in a blue pastel that allowed the audience to see a silhouette of the orchestra behind. A sun in a mosaic style was nestled in the sky, periodically carried up and down by a pulley, to mark the passage of time. A range of pastels cascaded down the length of the stage, reminiscent of the cool comforts of the sea.
The stage props were subtle, even simple, but the Brandeis Department of Theater Arts performance of “Songs for a New World” was anything but. Directed by Rachel Liff ’16 for her senior thesis, “Songs” is unique in that it is a play told through song, without a consistent storyline to hold it together, known as a song cycle. In fact, each individual song gives a glimpse of the lives of people of varied races, genders, classes and sexualities throughout human history. In her director’s note, Liff put a finger on the play’s charm, “‘Songs for a New World’ may be the only piece of theater that takes us from the Spanish Inquisition to the top of the New York City Skyscraper to the American Revolution and back again.”
A reflection of the human experience, the piece’s 20 songs traverse a wide range of human emotions, including both the highs and lows that are part of living. An altogether different type of show, “Songs for a New World” focuses less on the development of characters over time and more on the capacity for humans to feel, to suffer, to enjoy life and to overcome considerable challenges that arise from living under a particular circumstance. The second number, “On The Deck Of A Sailing Ship, 1492” describes a captain’s fears for all aboard his ship as they sail into the unknown. In Act Two, “Christmas Lullaby” recounts one woman’s astonishment and amazement at the revelation that she is pregnant. In the end “Songs for a New World” implies the union of humanity despite dividing factors like time, race and class.
For the majority of the show, actors performed alone on stage, or only with one other person, at least until the song called for the company. Five actors comprised the entire cast, with Gabi Nail ’18 as Woman #1, Rebecca Myers ’18 as Woman #2, Kiana Nwaobia ’17 as Woman #3, Adam Recht ’16 as Man #1 and Jason Theoharis ’17 as Man #2. These generic character names were necessary given that the actors played a different person with each song.
With stunning vocal performances all-around, Nwaboia’s deep, rich voice was nicely contrasted against Nail’s delicate, yet lush soprano voice. These voices, played against each other, resulted in interesting vocal combinations that helped drive home the emotional intensity of the individual pieces. With so many emotions, each of the singers had their own respective niches that, once put together, only amplified the heart-wrenching emotions therein.
Given the structure of the performance, each song could have easily catalyzed an entirely new production. In particular, one rather remarkable performance in Act I titled “Just One Step” told the story of a New York housewife whose volatile marriage caused her to have suicidal thoughts. The tensions apparent in her marriage stem from her desire for material items, including, but not limited to, a fur coat and a dog, as well as her anxieties over her appearance—”I’m embarrassing, I’m fat, I’m demanding, and controlling, and whatever, perhaps it’s true.” Myers fully captured the role and added dimension to a character who deserves to have her story told. Her New York accent was spot on, never bridging on the dramatic, and throughout the number she was able to convey subtleties about her character through the slightest hand motion and annoyingly high-pitched pronunciation of her husband’s name. Myers’ vocal delivery only added to the emotional tension with the anticipation of her suicide attempt as she first pretends to jump off a cliff, and then actually does.
Another notable performance in Act II, titled “I’d Give It All For You,” showcased the talents of both Nail and Theoharis in a duet about two people rediscovering their love for each other. One of the most inspirational songs of the entire play, the interplay between the two characters shows a pair of lovers who recognize their inability to live without each other. The vocal talents of both Nail and Theoharis shone through their supported sound, especially when they both sang in unison. Theodaris’ strong, husky voice paired with Nail’s abounding, sweet vocals produce a luxurious, rich vocal sound that only served to further emphasize the hope and wonder of finding someone who really cares.
“Songs for a New World,” though an ambitious show, was completely within the realm of Brandeis’ theater department to perform well. The subject matter and deliverance of the play spoke volumes about humanity as a whole—it’s capacity to feel and experience, as well as the trials and tribulations people have encountered through difficult circumstances—in a mindful and enlightening way.