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‘Songs for a New World’ is a great start to Schoolhouse 2010-11 seaon

By Staff | Oct 20, 2010

Erin Edelle performs “Christmas Lullaby.” (All photos by NICK ADAMS PHOTOGRAPHY)

The Herb Strauss Schoolhouse Theater, which joined with BIG ARTS earlier this year, has chosen the ideal musical to begin the 2010-11 season and — as the Schoolhouse and BIG ARTS embark on this new artistic voyage — audiences are sure to see the connection with this season’s fantastic debut.

Tony Award-winning composer-lyricist Jason Robert Brown’s “Songs for a New World” is not your average stage musical. There is no discernible plot, no dialogue, no consistent setting and an ever-changing cast of characters — Christopher Columbus, Mrs. Santa Claus, Betsy Ross, a wannabe basketball star, a suicidal housewife, a bum, a musician, a society woman, and so many more in between.

But they have one thing in common — they’re all standing at the precipice. Will they fall or fly?

The lyrics frequently reference the treacherous crossing of oceans, rivers and mountains, and the set, which consists of two sets of wooden staircases meeting at a centered platform high above the on-stage band, presents the cast with multiple opportunities to climb and descend, to rise and fall, to conquer and surrender.

An excerpt provided for the audience in the program comes from Scott Miller — an author, director, playwright, composer, lyricist and all-around theater guru — who has analyzed the show at length and pinpoints the essence of the show:

Mara Jill Herman performs “Just One Step.”

“As the first verse begins, the lyric tells us explicitly what the show is about: ‘It’s about one moment… And just when you’re on the verge of success, the sky starts to change and the wind starts to blow.’ In each song we will meet someone who has reached a defining moment in his or her life. It’s a moment almost everyone encounters, when you feel like you’ve finally made it, you’ve finally crossed the last mountain and there are only good times ahead. But at this particular moment, suddenly everything changes. The environment (whether physical or emotional) transforms, becoming something new and unknown. Things look different and feel different. Forces beyond your control force you off your safe path, making things more difficult, perhaps making it impossible to continue on the road you’d chosen.”

Though he was working with a complicated concept, director Galloway Stevens was certainly successful in stringing together this stream-of-consciousness-style musical experience. Schoolhouse Music Director Justin Cowan — with the help of a great trio of musicians at his side — effortlessly guided the audience through Brown’s incredible score, an emotional, uplifting hybrid of jazz, pop and gospel.

And in true Schoolhouse fashion, the cast is wonderfully talented. Michael Fisher (Man 1) is powerful and energetic as a jailed man desperate to be set free, and as a boy with aspirations for a professional basketball career.

Joe Donnelly (Man 2) is sweet and sincere as a man who discovers his life is incomplete without his love by his side, but also emotional and confused as a young man unsure of taking the final step with his fiancée.

Both have incredible voices and stage presence.

Joe Donnelly and Michael Fisher.

Erin Edelle (Woman 1) performs most of the ballads in the show, and her voice is clear, strong and undeniably moving. “Christmas Lullaby” is truly one of her shining moments.

Mara Jill Herman (Woman 2) performs the two “comedic” numbers in the show — a suicidal housewife preparing to jump off the 57th floor of her apartment building to teach her philandering husband a lesson and the terribly neglected and hysterically funny Mrs. Claus. She performs with such style and flare that it’s surprising — pleasantly so — to see her softer side come out during “The Flagmaker, 1775.”

Just like the men, these women are a joy to watch.

“Songs for a New World” runs Tuesday through Saturday until Nov. 6, and starts at 8 p.m.

Tickets are $30 for adults and $20 for children 16 and under, and are available at all three box office locations: BIG ARTS Center (395-0900) at 900 Dunlop Road, Gallery & Gift Shop and Box Office at 2244 Periwinkle Way and the Herb Strauss Schoolhouse Theater (472-6862) at 2200 Periwinkle Way.

“Songs for a New World” is supported by Ellington’s Jazz Bar and Restaurant and Herb Strauss Schoolhouse Theater Season Sponsor, The Sanibel Captiva Trust Company.

To see what the Herb Strauss Schoolhouse Theater has in store for the rest of the 2010-11 season, go to www.BIGARTS.org.