MILLBURN, N.J. — Jason Robert Brown is a composer-lyricist who knows how to write the perfect audition song: an entire character arc in a tidy, self-contained package that allows a performer the opportunity deliver a complete story.
It’s a skill that is evident in even Brown’s first staged show, “Songs for a New World,” from 1995 and given a new production that opened Sunday at the Paper Mill Playhouse here. Somewhere between theater and song cycle, it is a collection of piano-driven pathos generators with plenty of wistful character beats, loosely structured around watershed moments in which “the things that you’re sure of slip from your hand.”
Directed by Mark S. Hoebee, however, this straightforward revival keeps the show’s wide-eyed yearnings intact without taking the past quarter-century of change into account — its new world now seeming older. Each number stands alone, and you don’t have to look too closely to notice that the heaviest of them are shouldered by the production’s sole Black cast member, Roman Banks. One is titled “On the Deck of a Spanish Sailing Ship, 1492”; others are about a dead soldier, a basketball player surrounded by disadvantages, a man imprisoned.
To be fair, the casting here follows the same racial lines as the original production’s, which featured Billy Porter in Banks’s role. But consider the subjects of songs sung by his white male co-star, Andrew Kober: leaving a fiancée, being in love, reuniting with a partner. It makes for a dated artistic vision that plays into tired stereotypes of Black pain in a show that does not otherwise explore race.
A great performance can transcend the material, though, and in this production, these moments belong to Carolee Carmello. She lends her vocal deftness to the cabaret standard “Stars and the Moon,” and goes full “Cabaret” with the Kurt Weill sendup “Surabaya-Santa,” in which a scorned Mrs. Claus straddles a chair and bids her bearded lover goodbye. Her powerful, textured voice beckons listeners even as it resonates up to the rafters. And her first solo, the comedic “Just One Step,” smartly mines humor from preposterously elongated vibrato.
Mia Pinero and Banks are young and talented, but not assuredly able to drive home the powerful numbers they are given, though Pinero was at her finest in “Christmas Lullaby”; Banks, in “King of the World.” Kober, with his hands permanently in his pockets and a shrug fixed on his shoulders, seems to actively resist any real engagement with the audience. (It doesn’t help that he’s tasked with the least interesting songs.)
Kelly James Tighe’s set design rightly places the pianist front and center, behind which the orchestra plays — wonderfully, conducted by Sinai Tabak — on a platform with steps at either side of the stage for unfussy, simple entrances and exits by the cast. The choreography, by Kenny Ingram, is agonizingly literal: predictable in the way musicals are often mocked with bouncy, handy moves. At one point, Carmello dances to “The Steam Train” with a locomotive “choo-choo.”
You can almost forgive the indignity of that, though, whenever she begins to sing. If this “Songs for a New World” production feels wobbly in its search for brighter lands, she is the X that marks the spot.
Songs for a New World
Through Nov. 7 at Paper Mill Playhouse in Milburn, N.J.; papermill.org. Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes.