The Great Hall, The Arts Centre, Christchurch

12/07/2017 - 16/07/2017

Production Details

Proudly presented by So Keen Productions, SONGS FOR A NEW WORLD is a moving collection of powerful songs that examines life, love and the choices that we make.

With a small, powerhouse cast of Juliet Reynolds-Midgley, Nick Hollamby, Ben Robertson and Sophie Petersen, driving an exquisitely crafted score running the gamut of today’s popular music, Songs for a New World has a flavour for everyone.

The Great Hall – Christchurch Arts Centre
12th– 16th of July


Woman 1 : Sophie Petersen 
Woman 2 : Juliet Reynolds Midgley 
Man 1 : Ben Robertson 
Man 2  : Nick Hollamby

Piano : Shea Kokaua 
Keys2 : Dean Coulson 
Percussion : Craig Given 
Bass :Clayton Hiku 
Drums : Douglas Brush

Production Manager: Ben Freeth 
Co Producer:  Keeneth Love 
Co Producer: Sophie Petersen 
Lighting by Lightsite 
Art Design : Simon Dowding 

Theatre , Musical ,

Different, well-performed, entertaining and, at times, genuinely moving

Review by Tony Ryan 13th Jul 2017

On a bitterly cold night with snow on the suburban hills of Christchurch and icy conditions around the city, the last thing I want to do is leave the warmth and comfort of my lounge to attend a show which is (to me) of rather unknown quantity. But how heartening it is to step into the Great Hall, newly reopened after six years of doubts and, finally, renovations. The blazing fire in the grand old fireplace immediately lifts the spirits and the friendly, welcoming and well-organised front-of-house staff immediately make me glad that I’ve made the effort.

And the visual atmosphere created by the seating layout and wonderfully evocative (although uncredited) set-design evokes an atmosphere of both creative imagination and genuine professionalism. A glance at the programme makes it clear that this new company, So Keen Productions, is another of the many offspring of the National Academy of Singing and Dramatic Art (NASDA) that have sprung up all over the country in recent years. NASDA’s graduates are often encountered at Court Theatre, Showbiz Christchurch, in educational touring projects and several of their own professional companies, and they have infiltrated and enriched theatre and music-theatre life all around the country and beyond. Founded in 1994, NASDA is the result of the vision and determination of its founder Luisa Shannahan, who should surely be credited with a truly far-reaching influence on the development of professional theatre in New Zealand. 

The director of Songs for a New World, Soseh Yekanians, is currently a principal tutor at NASDA, and musical director, Shea Kokaua, is one of its former students. All of the cast and several of the support crew also have NASDA connections, either as tutors or as products of its training. But the show is very much a professional endeavour rather than a trainee production.

Written by New Yorker, Jason Robert Brown, Songs for a New World was originally produced Off Broadway in 1995. Described as a blend of musical, revue and song-cycle, it reminds me in some ways of another revue-type musical, Working, that I encountered some years ago. The singing and musical style is very much the Broadway/West-End late-twentieth-century combination of ‘high belt’ and pop-rock vocal embellishments found in such shows as The Producers, Rent, Wicked, etc, and all four members of the singing cast in last night’s performance demonstrate their mastery of the genre.  

The show itself is a compilation of seventeen songs (there’s no real dialogue apart from the occasional spoken line as part of a song) that composer-lyricist Jason Robert Brown had written for previous projects and, although there is a unity and dramatic logic in the piece’s overall structure, a couple of the songs seem musically anomalous in terms of certain stylistic characteristics.

Two songs in particular stand out for their distinctive suggestions of completely different musical styles. The hilarious ‘Surabaya-Santa’ is full of Kurt Weill cabaret, while the eloquent and poignant ‘The Flagmaker, 1775’ draws on the style of drums-and-fife marching songs of the American War of Independence. Both of these songs are delivered with consummate flair and character by Juliet Reynolds-Midgley. Some might even argue that it is the performance that makes these two numbers stand out, because Reynolds-Midgley’s characterisation and vocal variety are so comprehensive and reliable throughout the production that she consistently demands our engagement and emotional involvement. Her two other songs, earlier in the evening, are equally convincing.

Some of this characterisation and imaginative variety is also evident in the performances from Ben Robertson, a newcomer to professional theatre. His energetic delivery of ‘The Steam Train’ brings the first act to an impressive, entertaining and persuasive conclusion. However, both he and the other two cast-members tend to underplay their characters. Although Sophie Petersen and Nick Hollamby (who has previously performed the show in Australia) are both accomplished singer-actors, neither manage to fully differentiate their various characters convincingly enough. Both their vocal and their physical expression tend to be generalised and underplayed. But if Reynolds-Midgley is a more magnetic stage personality, the others in the cast certainly provide a sense of a cohesive ensemble that works effectively and with a positive sense of rapport.

At times the director, Soseh Yekanians, seems at a loss as to what to do with actors when they aren’t actually singing. Writing (letters home; office work?) seems to be a fall-back solution, although some (Reynolds-Midgley again) sometimes participate sympathetically as onlookers in ways that help to concentrate audience engagement without distracting from the central focal-point. However, the use of the cleverly-devised stage areas is managed creatively and effectively. 

The show itself comprises attractive musical invention without ever quite hitting that instantly-memorable spot. The lyrics are sometimes a little contrived, but are more often very clever and inventive with Sondheim-like rhymes that are witty and expressive. 

The on-stage five-piece band provides faultless support, although it would have been better to have it more forwardly placed with all players visible. Musical director Shea Kokaua leads from the piano and shows himself to be an accomplished leader, maintaining disciplined ensemble from both the singers and instrumentalists, and even making a contribution to the vocals from time-to-time, including a solo line in the final song. The only other visible player from my seat is Craig Given, who contributes an endless variety of percussion effects: congas, maracas, bells, timpani (extremely effective in The Flagmaker), vibraphone and more. Although such details never draw unwanted attention to themselves, the effects, in terms of variety, colour and atmosphere, make an invaluable contribution to the show’s impact. He is very busy throughout the evening; no doubt quite a bit busier than the two percussionists that shared the part in the original New York production. The other players, equally important, contribute audibly to the excellence of the music – we seem to have so much talent in the city! 

My only real niggle is with the concept of playing piped music before the show and during the interval. In a musical show this always seems to undermine and to be disrespectful to the live musicians and singers. I’ve never encountered this on Broadway or in London except as a planned and deliberate part of the musical shape and development of a show. In a live musical performance, it’s as if we are being asked to listen critically and analytically during the performance, but are being made to treat music as wallpaper between acts. And last night, quiet as the interval music was, it was played right up until micro-seconds before the live band started to play. It’s just wrong.

But do go and see Songs for a New World. It’s different, well-performed, entertaining and, at times, genuinely moving. It’s the sort of show and production that I’d be glad to encounter on Broadway or the West End, providing contrast and variety from (sometimes) less satisfying mainstream fare.  


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