Songs For A New World at Shea’s Smith Theatre

The long-awaited in person performances of Songs for a New World were heralded all over Buffalo before it even opened; the success of the streaming production in June and advertising around the city gave the production an additional sense of promise. Second Generation’s production, directed by Amy Jakiel, delivers on the promise. From the opening piano chime to the final chords of “Hear My Song,” Jakiel’s assembled company, supported by Stephen Piotrowski’s music direction, are imbued with a spirit of hopefulness, determination, and strength. 

Three of the four performers from the summer streaming production return, while elements of the streaming production are incorporated into television monitors behind the cast. New to the cast is Genevieve Ellis, while Cecilia Snow is performing elsewhere (ironically, I think, just finishing up a different production of the show). This show only works if the cast can really act a song, which is why SGT has assembled some of the best singers and actors in Buffalo. The show functions more like a musical revue than a book musical, and Jakiel smartly directs the actors through the story without trying to force connection that lays outside the material. 
All four performers have excellent voices, and are finding the genuine emotion in Jason Robert Brown’s complex score. The moments where the four are singing together are incredibly powerful, and reminded me just how much I missed hearing the sound of live theater. As Man 2, Steve Copps has a rich and honest portrayal of his characters. I was particularly impressed with his performance in “The World Was Dancing.” Genevieve Ellis is a welcome newcomer to the Buffalo theater scene, and her clear and powerful mix makes the thematic repetition of the opening motif exciting every time it comes back around. You see just how much depth she possesses during numbers like “Stars and the Moon” and “Christmas Lullaby.” Michele Marie Roberts’ comedic talents are on display in a few numbers in the show (her “Surabaya Santa” is to die for), but the real shining moments are “Stars and the Moon” and especially “The Flagmaker, 1775.”

While all of these performances are fantastic, Brian Brown’s performance as Man 1 is beyond exceptional. His voice is smooth and gentle while still being strong and soulful. Every song he is featured on is a musical expedition, and it’s clear he’s been given liberty with the score. His performance seems equal parts measured and improvisational. I was very much compelled to give his and the company’s performance of “Flying Home” a standing ovation. Brown is versatile as an actor and singer, and I’m not sure enough people have or will witness his musical brilliance. Be prepared to hear his name countless times going forward.

I intentionally didn’t watch the acclaimed streaming version of this production because I knew that as theater recovered from a global pandemic (we’re not out of the woods yet, by the way) I would need to hear these words, songs, this music in person. My expectations were exceeded. I’m glad to see that Second Generation’s impressive new logo and branding hasn’t taken away their penchant for impactful theater. Thanks for ushering us into “the new world.”

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