An Iraq War Context for Compelling 'Songs'

Rob McQuay plays the antagonistic Radical (in opposition to the pompous Politician) in the musical revue
Rob McQuay plays the antagonistic Radical (in opposition to the pompous Politician) in the musical revue "Songs for the New World," onstage through Aug. 26 in Silver Spring. (By Ian Armstrong)
By Celia Wren
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, August 13, 2007

Jason Robert Brown's "Songs for a New World" muses on life's transformative moments -- times of decision, crisis and renewal. Now the 1995 revue has reached its own turning point: In a risky move that mostly pays off, Suzanne Richard, artistic director of Open Circle Theatre, has reimagined Brown's song cycle as a tale of Americans serving in, and reacting to, the Iraq war.

Her smartly staged, visually striking production at Round House Theatre Silver Spring features a whopping cast of 24. ("Songs" was originally staged with four.) The vocal performances aren't as strong as one might wish -- the singing doesn't always coast confidently atop the now-shivery, now rollicking pop-and-gospel-inflected score. But this staging of "Songs" by Open Circle, whose productions are dedicated to theater that includes artists with disabilities, offers compensatory pleasures.

The chief of these is the inspired integration of sign language into the fabric of the scenes, which are set in locales ranging from Dupont Circle to war-torn Iraq. When one performer breaks into one of Brown's stirring numbers, another, standing nearby and staying in character, relays the lyrics in American Sign Language -- often with stemwinder expressiveness. For audiences who see sign-language performance infrequently, Warren Snipe's impassioned rendition of the elegiac "Flying Home," or Greg Anderson's antic comedy in the male gripe session "She Cries," will be eye-opening revelations of the medium's dramatic scope.

Snipe portrays an African American soldier -- one of a handful of emblematic figures who anchor scenes of military courage, familial anguish, sentiment for and against the war, and tragedy. The loose storyline, which has required the reshuffling of the revue's music and lyrics ("Over," a song from Brown's album "Wearing Someone Else's Clothes," has been interpolated), also involves a Female Soldier (Debra Buonaccorsi), a pompous Politician (Lanny Slusher) and his antagonist the Radical (a compellingly disgruntled Rob McQuay), and the Mother (Barbara Catrett). A program note explains that family bonds link the characters, but these connections aren't always clear onstage.

However, the gist of the story is plain, because the moods and images are so sharply etched. We watch the Female Soldier, dressed in medic's garb, tug bloodied latex gloves from her hands as she loiters in a chapel. We glimpse travelers milling excitedly beneath the flight board at a Washington airport as the Politician postures for a news camera. We see the Radical fuming in a prison cell, wearing an orange convict uniform. Director Richard has done a particularly deft job deploying the ensemble: The crowd scenes contain idiosyncratic details -- a passerby wears an Amtrak jacket; a soldier scribbles on a girl's hand -- and the groupings of people always look natural.

A similar sense of relaxed individualism characterizes the choreography, which favors the kind of skipping, shimmying moves you might execute when listening to a peppy radio station. (Choreographers Shula Strassfeld and Peter DiMuro are dancers with Liz Lerman Dance Exchange.) Looming up behind the performers is a screen for photographic projections: fires in an Iraqi oil field, a statue of the Virgin Mary, the Politician's face on a campaign banner. Even the stage surface packs a visual punch: It's painted with the American flag -- but a discolored one, with greenish stripes and a yellow background for the stars.

Inevitably, given the war theme, some of the production's tableaus are near-tearjerkers (a vision of a military cemetery comes to mind). But it stands to reason that there would be drawbacks to shoehorning Brown's resonant ambiguity into a CNN-worthy narrative. Ultimately, this "Songs" can't transcend the status of an experiment -- but it's an experiment that's artful and intriguing.

Songs for a New World, music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown. Directed by Suzanne Richard; music direction, Zak Sandler; scenic design, Klyph Stanford; costumes, Erin Nugent; sound, Ian Armstrong; lighting, Marianne Meadows; sign master, Monique Holt. With James Garland, Jan Johns, Joe Peck and others. Approximately two hours. Through Aug. 26 at the Round House Theatre, 8641 Colesville Rd., Silver Spring. Call 240-683-0305 or visit

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