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Last summer’s virtual was good, but SGT’s SONGS FOR A NEW WORLD, live now at Shea’s Smith, is so much more

A small pit orchestra that's better than I can remember anywhere locally, plus all that talent right there in front of you, makes a winner

THE BASICS:  SONGS FOR A NEW WORLD with music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown, directed by Amy Jakiel, continues at Shea’s Smith Theatre, 658 Main Street, adjacent to Shea’s PAC.  For tickets visit secondgenerationtheatre.com or call (716) 874-0850.  Remaining shows are Thursday – Sunday, October 28 – 31 and November 11 – 14, Thursdays and Fridays at 7:30 pm, Saturdays at both 2 and 8, and Sundays at 2. NOTE: There are no performances during the first week of November to accommodate the national tour of the musical THE BAND’S VISIT at Shea’s November 2-7.

Runtime: Two hours with one intermission

THUMBNAIL SKETCH: Not a musical, per se (there is no overall dramatic arc and no character continuity) it’s not quite a cabaret, either.  This musical is a collection of songs from other Jason Robert Brown projects.  SONGS FOR A NEW WORLD does have a consistent (and easy to listen to) musical style for many of Brown’s songs, but he’s also adept at different genres (blues, jazz) and even includes a very funny parody of the Kurt Weill – Bertolt Brecht song “Surabaya Johnny” which becomes “Surabaya Santa” as sung by a pissed off “Mrs. Claus.”  The true through-line from song to song, though, is the subject matter.  In Brown’s own words: “It’s about one moment. It’s about hitting the wall and having to make a choice, or take a stand, or turn around and go back.”  To quote Second Generation’s publicity, it’s a “song cycle full of love, loss, hope, and discovery.”  Or, to use a popular term during the shutdown, it’s about having to “pivot.”

THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: Building from the June production which was filmed all over Buffalo (read my “Four Buffalo” review here) SONGS FOR A NEW WORLD welcomes back Michele Marie Roberts, Brian Brown, and Steve Copps and introduces us to Genevieve Ellis who is replacing this past summer’s Cecilia Snow.  Ms. Snow was otherwise occupied as she was starring in the same musical at the Broward (FL) Center for the Performing Arts!

Brian Brown

The most recognized number in SONGS FOR A NEW WORLD is, I would say, “Stars and the Moon” which just about every Broadway star has covered.  And with good reason.  It’s wistful, sad and sassy and very Sondheim-esque.  As expected, Roberts certainly delivered on that one.  She, among her many past roles, ripped my heart out with her recent performances in the musical FUN HOME, floored me as “The Lady of the Lake” in SPAMALOT, and will also be remembered by many for her lead in THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY.  And, I must admit, the songs that stuck with me here were three that she sang – “Stars,” “Surabaya,” and the funny/not funny “Just One Step.”

Steve Copps

Speaking of BRIDGES, her then co-star Steve Copps again came with a big baritone voice for SONGS.  Copps continued to be cool and confident in his voice while Brian Brown was quite athletic, taking advantage of the multi-level stage provided by Chris Cavanagh whose videography from the summer (shots of Buffalo) is projected on panels adding a “verismo” touch to the show.  Second Generation stages are quite remarkable, transforming what is basically an old restaurant (Laube’s Old Spain) into a legit theater.  They did a great job with the space in NINE, TOXIC AVENGER, and BIG FISH and again here with SONGS.

Genevieve Ellis

The new kid on the 600 block of Main Street is Genevieve Ellis, like Brown a SUNY Fredonia graduate, and, even though she’s new to Buffalo stages, has been in a number of musicals out of town.  With a lovely modulated voice and a winning smile, we can’t wait to see her on another stage soon!  Welcome Ms. Ellis!

Apart from Michelle Roberts, the other standout star of the show we actually meet in the shadows, and that’s violinist Amie Vredenburg, hidden upstage to our left.  Among her many other gigs, she’s the concertmaster of The Cheektowaga Symphony and she is the real deal.  Readers of Buffalo Rising may be aware that I also review the Buffalo Philharmonic Concerts, I hold violinists to a higher standard than most musical theater fans might, and Ms. Vredenburg could hold her own on any stage.  Along with cellist Conor Sullivan, the string passages were so enjoyable.

At the piano was Music Director, Stephen Piotrowski; Brian McMahon on drums; guitar Larry Albert, and bass Melissa Bender.  Best pit band I’ve heard in a long time.

Like many other presenters, SGT has made the move to digital playbills.  I get it, printed playbills kill trees, fill landfills, and cost money, so before you go, you might want to look at the digital playbill here.

If you forget, you can still scan the QR code in the theater, but then, of course, you’ll have to turn your phone OFF once the musical starts.

SGT follows Shea’s stringent protocols.  So, have your mask, your Covid card (or your Excelsior pass), and photo ID.

COMING UP NEXT:

SGT FREE READING SERIES (on Monday nights) at the same Shea’s Smith Theatre 658 Main Street starting with THE HAUNTING OF HOOVERTON HOTEL, a new play by Joseph Spears, a reading directed by Doug Weyand, November 22, 2021 at 7pm (which means you’ll be home in time to watch the opera SUSANNAH by Carlisle Floyd starring Buffalo favorite Emily Yancey on television, WNED-PBS).

There will be three more readings of different plays on January 10, April 11, and July 11, 2022.  We’ve been attending SGT’s free readings in Kenmore and they are quite enjoyable.  In fact, that’s where we saw a reading of CONSTELLATIONS by Nick Payne which, as it happens, will be the next fully produced play for SGT starring Kristin Bentley and Chris Avery, March 11 – 26, 2022.  Following that SGT presents CABARET, June 10 – 26, 2022.

If the fact that SONGS FOR A NEW WORLD takes a break in the middle of the run is confusing, here’s a different way of telling you when you can attend either before or after the national tour of THE BAND’S VISIT at Shea’s Performing Arts Center.

  • Thursday October 28th & November 11th @ 7:30 pm
  • Friday October 29th & November 12th  @ 7:30 pm
  • Saturday October 30th & November 13th  @ 2:00 pm & 8:00 pm
  • Sunday October 31st & November 14th @ 2:00 pm

*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)

ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.

TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.

THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.

FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.

FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!

Lead image: (L-R) Roberts, Ellis, Copps, Brown

Written by Peter Hall

Peter Hall

Peter Hall continues trying to figure out how "it" all works. For over 20 years, as a producer and program host on WNED Classical (94.5 FM), he's conducted over 1,000 interviews with artists as he asks them to explain, in layman's terms, "what's the big picture here?" These days Peter can be heard regularly on Sunday afternoons from 1 to 5.

On “Theater Talk” (heard Friday mornings at 6:45 and 8:45 a.m. on WBFO 88.7 FM) his favorite question of co-host Anthony Chase is simply "What's goin' on?" As mentioned recently in Buffalo Spree magazine, Peter's "Buffalo Rising reviews are the no-holds barred 'everyman's' take."

A member of Buffalo's Artie Awards Committee, Peter holds a B.A. in Comparative Literature from Columbia University and an M.B.A. from SUNY at Buffalo. For over twenty-five years he was an adjunct professor for Canisius College’s Richard J. Wehle School of Business.

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