Dignity Players’ Songs for a New World is an auditory rush. From the first haunting strains of The New World — sent washing by Wendy Baird over the audience from the back of the auditorium — to the company’s stunning final chord in Hear My Song, Jason Robert Brown’s pop-rock revue of the American psyche is packed with thrilling musical moments colored by our nation’s gospel, blues, jazz and classical traditions.
Each song has a distinct voice, from the cocky voice of athletic ambition in Steam Train — engagingly sung and danced by the consummate showman Peter Crews — to the discontented excess of a woman’s romantic regrets in the blockbuster Stars and the Moon, delivered with style by Sheri Kuznicki Owen. It’s the sweet, rich voice of devotion from Dan Herrel’s hen-pecked husband in She Cries, and the steady sound of calm in Sandy Boldman’s I’m Not Afraid of Anything. Comedic highlights are the voice of desperation on the ledge of a skyscraper in Just One Step, acted with flair by Baird — the area’s most versatile and evocative chanteuse — and Mrs. Claus’ voice of frustration in Boldman’s Surabaya Santa.
Brown’s music has a kinetic accompaniment and driving melodic line that Dignity Players showcased last spring in his The Last Five Years, also starring Owen. A steady diet of Brown’s solos gets monotonous, especially in the bare-bones production that is this company’s stock in trade. So the walloping wall of sound in the ensemble pieces is most thrilling.
Dean Davis’ urgent plaintiveness as Christopher Columbus becomes electric when the crew joins him in cautious jubilation On the Deck of a Spanish Sailing Ship. Likewise, the rueful voices of urban disillusion in The River Won’t Flow and the voices of faith in Flying Home, presented here as an AIDS tribute, are stronger in numbers. This is partly because Brown excels at harmony, but also because he demands such range from his soloists that they are often hard to hear over the band. For that reason, and because the music sells best when it is loud, everyone wears odious body mikes, which should not be necessary for trained singers in a small room.
Vocal blend is where it’s at, and this cast nails it. In a revue with zero dialog and few hints of costume, this cast’s clear diction was not only appreciated but also essential. Staging is so minimal there are only three props: some basketballs, a Santa hat and a flag for the modern-day Betsy Ross (Owen) who sings with ferocious domesticity in The Flagmaker. It’s a tearjerker enhanced by a video montage of soldiers in the War on Terror, a technique this director employs to great effect throughout the show to convey his interpretation of the music.
Choreography is effective, but I wish there had been more, for there are too many moments when performers stare into space, exchanging knowing grins. It’s as if they have a secret they refuse to share, and I found it most rewarding to soak in the lush sound.