Considering its origins as an abstract musical, eschewing traditional plotting and consistent characters in favor of thematically connected vignettes, Jason Robert Brown’s “Songs for a New World” is an inherently malleable work. In the assured hands of director Megan Bunn, Monumental Theatre’s streaming production has molded the blend of pop rock melodies and stagy show tunes into a visual album that celebrates the interpersonal connections sacrificed by so many over the past year-plus.
The stories told across the songs, loosely structured around life’s pivotal moments of decision, are specific. But for a show that debuted off-Broadway in 1995, its musings on the human experience remain universal. Although Monumental’s version was shot across myriad locations in the Washington area — a lakeside dock, a blacktop basketball court, a grassy forest clearing — the framing device imagines the four virtuoso performers as members of a support group, opening up in a tightknit circle of trust. As we emerge from this time of shared trauma, what conceit could be more apt?
On the technical side, this filmed production is a bit rough around the edges. The vocals tend to stray out of sync with the actors’ lips, and an inconsistent audio mix left me sporadically ramping the volume up and down. Without a clear narrative to grasp, or the irreplicable energy of sharing a space with the performers, fatigue sets in around the hour mark of the 86-minute show.
D.C. theater is taking cautious steps back to ‘live’ with plexiglass screens and plays on headphones
Those are quibbles, though, for a small-scale production that indulges in ingenuity. Often shooting inside tight spaces — including the modest meeting room that hosts much of the show — videographer Zack Gross makes the ambitious look effortless as he weaves the camera between performers. David Singleton’s vibrant choreography makes the most of the sparse cast, particularly when the actors prance around a pool table to the toe-tapper “The River Won’t Flow.” The orchestrations are richly realized, and the production gives the masked musicians their due with a glimpse during the end credits of the coronavirus-safe recording process.
As a showcase for local actors, “Songs for a New World” soars. Elvie Ellis navigates “On the Deck of a Spanish Sailing Ship, 1492” with authority, then pivots from braggadocios to soul-baring as a budding basketball star with a dark past in “The Steam Train.” Sarah Anne Sillers reeks of booze and desperation as a scorned socialite in “Just One Step” and reserves enough of that unhinged envy to imagine a bitter Mrs. Claus in “Surabaya-Santa.” Kylie Clare Smith lends particular gravitas to “I’m Not Afraid of Anything,” a cathartic anthem of self-actualization. And Ryan Burke stands out in an aching rendition of the lover letter “She Cries,” which Bunn stages with clever sleight of hand.
Even if the tunes’ disconnected nature inevitably splinters any overarching message, the finale, “Hear My Song,” hammers home the timely notion of enduring through hardship and emerging stronger. “Hear my song/ It’ll help us get through till tomorrow,” Burke sings. “Hear my song/ It’ll help us survive all the pain.” “Songs for a New World” was, of course, crafted for the stage. But by emphasizing theater’s resilience until in-person performance returns, this streaming version honors the show’s ideology all the same.
Songs for a New World, music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown. Directed by Megan Bunn. Music direction, Marika Countouris; choreography, David Singleton; costumes, Jeannette Christensen; sound design, Alec Green; videography, Zack Gross. 86 minutes. $25-$30. Streaming through July 31 at monumentaltheatre.org.