At a professionally-packed first night for Songs For A New World even long-time theatre diehards were squeaky with anticipation: never before have so many been longing for a ‘decent’ production of their favourite 1995 off-Broadway concept show.  And they raved about it, cheering every song and jumping to their feet at the end.

No doubt at all that three of the four performers are so far beyond outstanding you have to hug yourself you’ve got them up close and personal.  From the moment she walks on stage singing the title song, Cynthia Erivo exudes calm assurance that she has it covered, and simply makes every phrase and every note count.  Her ‘I’m Not Afraid of Anything‘ has to be the best rendition evah, but I am actually afraid that when she opens on Broadway as Celie in The Color Purple this autumn, we may not see her back in London for a long time.

Jenna Russell is rightly celebrated as one of the finest interpreters of Sondheim’s work and since fans refer to him as the love-child of Sondheim and Billy Joel, embracing Jason Robert Brown’s music and lyrics comes naturally.  She teeters on a delicious ledge both musically and physically in the will-she-won’t-she-but-she-probably-won’t suicide song ‘Just One Step’, makes ‘Surabaya Santa’ hilarious and delivers JRB’s most famous one about the woman who never gets what she wants ‘Stars and the Moon’ as though you never heard it before.  Which, if you’ve ever been to see any actress over thirty do cabaret, you certainly have.

Damian Humbley is perfectly naturally geeky-to-blokeish in his acting and singing, he’s so like a musical theatre equivalent of great British actors like Rory Kinnear or Rafe Spall that it’s easy to forget he’s Australian.  His songs are mostly about heartache and regret, and he uses lovely opportunities to show off his upper register with power and finesse and when he duets with Erivo on ‘I’d Give It All For You’ it’s painfully beautiful.  Someone needs to cast him and Russell in The Goodbye Girl.

Without dismissing him as just a bag of muscles in a vest, the fourth crew member has a different style of voice: more nasally resonant and coming perhaps from jazz and pop. Dean John-Wilson has work to do to match the musical theatre triumvirate alongside him but it’s a great learning opportunity and he couldn’t have better teachers.

Aficionados argue whether this is a concert or a musical – so what – but Adam Lenson’s crass staging adds nothing at all: there’s a Brookylnesque warehouse apartment with a view of the Statue of Liberty and some random house-moving memory-jerking props, but sans dialogue or plot, and with similar songs which don’t connect in a narrative, it’s pretty pointless.

The house band, led by Daniel A. Weiss, is ace.


This review originally written for Londonist.