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Songs for a New World at Next Level Feels as Disconnected as Many of Its Characters

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Before he achieved award-winning success with such works as Parade, The Last Five Years, and The Bridges of Madison County, composer/lyricist Jason Robert Brown was a scrappy striver, toiling at piano bars and nightclubs in New York City. His first show, Songs for a New World, which premiered off-Broadway in 1995, feels like an earnest if overambitious audition tape, effective more for the fertile possibilities it suggests than the coherence of the work itself.

Designed as a song cycle for a quartet of nameless singers (they are credited as "Man 1," "Woman 2," and so forth), Songs for a New World traverses centuries of American history, from the decks of Columbus' vessels and the home front of the Revolutionary War to the mythical North Pole and the window ledge of a contemporary Manhattan skyscraper. Its characters are dreamers, romantics, depressives, prisoners, and derelicts, clinging to love and hope the way shipwreck survivors cling to life preservers.

If the upstart Marquee Theater Company's limited two-week run of the show feels shapeless and distant, the problem is partly the source: With characters who enter and exit our consciousness in four-minute fragments, it's hard to feel anything for their plight. This, combined with a subpar audio system and too many inaudible lyrics, results in a production that feels as adrift as some of its subjects.

Staged inside Next Level Performing Arts, the company's intimate Parkland black box, this budget-conscious production is not without its isolated triumphs and imaginative eccentricities, however. The music is prerecorded, and the set is adorned with only a pair of multipurpose staircases in front of a black-and-white banner depicting a New York skyline — a bare-bones canvas that director/choreographer Ben Solmor populates with not only his four actor/singers but also five dancers who are used for comic effect as well as manifestations of the singers' inner lives. The concept is half-realized — note the lengthy stretches of the show in which no dancers appear — and it occasionally undercuts the content of the songs. But in other instances, the movement offers a jolt of visual variety amid the otherwise limited staging.

As for the actors, South Florida musical-theater veteran Leah Sessa, who has exhibited deft comic chops at theaters from Fort Lauderdale to West Palm Beach this year, is here given the songs with the most dramatic heft, and she's tops among the cast at communicating the emotions of her solo compositions, in this case "I'm Not Afraid of Anything" and "Christmas Lullaby." Jordana Forrest has the show's most amusing numbers, including the cabaret standard "Stars and the Moon," but she acts better than she sounds. Many of the lyrics in "Just One Step" are so incomprehensible that it's difficult to understand that her character is contemplating suicide, and she adopts too many vocal personae in "Surabaya-Santa," an Act II centerpiece about a sadistic Mrs. Claus offering her hubby 50 shades of red and green.

Elijah Word comes across as the show's best undiscovered talent, excelling at any style the show throws at him, from Broadway pop to gospel and soul; his "The River Won't Flow" is performed with a rousing, Bill Withers-style uplift. The cast's only consistently weak link is James Giordano, who conjures a deer in headlights from the show's opening moments and never seems comfortable with the movement or lyrics.

The show has no credited lighting designer, and it could have used one. Audiences may have to forgive quivering spotlights and missed cues. The show's technical decisions are questionable elsewhere too; the fog and strobe effects employed in "Just One Step" seem like juvenile crutches when the lyrics should sell themselves. If we could only understand them, it would be just one crucial step in the right direction.

Songs for a New World
Through December 20 at Next Level Performing Arts, 7533 N. State Road 7, Parkland. Tickets cost $18 to $28. Call 954-464-8249, or visit marqueetheatercompany.com.

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