Fabulist Theatre’s Songs for a New World never takes flight

Poor casting choices and uninspired directing overshadows everything else.

Fabulist Theatre has taken on a difficult challenge by presenting Jason Robert Brown’s renowned musical theatre piece, Songs for a New World. This entirely sung-through show centres on the theme of people making life-altering decisions. Unfortunately, not only does Fabulist Theatre’s production fall flat, it never even gets off the ground.

There are a number of issues that make it impossible for this production to ever gain momentum. For one, a third of the cast do not have the vocal ability to tackle Brown’s vocally demanding score. Secondly, also about a third of the cast seem to lack energy and/or stage presence. The staging is also underwhelming and there’s an absence of any type of consistency in the way the show is presented. Images are abruptly projected onto a screen about three quarters of the way through the show in the song, “The Flagmaker, 1775”, without having been used prior to or after the song. Often times it’s also very difficult to hear the singers over the band, since there is no amplification for the vocals.

The first moments of the show start off promising, with the talented Allyson Fournier captivating us with her beautiful singing as she plays a soldier going off to war. But as the other actors enter, the show quickly takes a nose dive. While the cast sing about “that one moment” when they have to make a life-changing decision, some of actors look disinterested – even bored – onstage. For some bizarre reason, there’s no sense of urgency or excitement. And there’s a weird little choreographic phrase lasting about two seconds in the number, which was pretty much void of any choreography up until that point. Not being able to hear the lyrics over top of the band adds to the frustration.

The next scene, which apparently depicts refugees traveling in a boat across the Pacific Ocean, is quite baffling. The ensemble sing about how they’re struggling to survive, yet they appear to just be wearing stereotypical-looking refugee outfits while standing in a room. Some of them also look like they have nothing better to do. Thank god for Regi Nevada, who is one of the saving graces of this production. Her soulful voice and constant sense of grit and urgency is outstanding – and what this show is meant to be all about.

Also deserving of praise is the delightful Charity G. Principe, whose comedic characterization is most welcome in her solo, “Just One Step”. In this number, she portrays an eccentric woman threatening to jump off the 57th floor of her Manhattan highrise, to the non-reactive response of her husband. It’s a shame we can’t hear much of her lyrics over top of the band.

The highlight of the show is the showstopping “Surabaya Santa” performed by Cheryl Mullen. In this piece, Mullen portrays an infuriated Mrs. Clause who has had enough of Santa leaving her alone every Christmas Eve. She feels their marriage has fallen apart, and when she sees how Santa looks at Blitzen, it reminds her of the passion she and Santa used to share. Mullen brings down the house with her commanding performance and comic timing.

There are a few other nice glimmers of light throughout the show. Kate MacColl does a beautiful rendition of “Stars and the Moon”, where she reminisces to her daughter about the romantic choices she’s made in life. Young Arta Negahban has great pizazz and gets to shine in some of the choreographic moments, including showcasing a fantastic front walkover. And the intriguing “The World Was Dancing”, nicely captures the interesting romantic dynamics between two young men who also have girlfriends.

But for the most part, the show consists of numbers that you really wished would fare well – but never came close to making it. The common problem are performers who simply do not have the vocal ability for this calibre of music, nor the acting ability to believably portray their characters. The casting for this show was done very poorly, and that, combined with amateurish directing, means this production was doomed from the start. If this production was a refugee, their journey would have been over before leaving their living room.

Fabulist Theatre's Songs for a New World plays at the PAL Studio Theatre until April 1. Click here for ticket information.