Reconceptualizing a theater piece is either a brilliant stroke or an attempt to put a $70 haircut on a $3 head. Once you commit to a concept, you have to stick with it throughout, which can lead to painful shoehorning to make everything fit.
Suzanne Richard, artistic director of Open Circle Theatre, a troupe made up of disabled and nondisabled actors, has radically re-imagined Jason Robert Brown’s song cycle, “Songs for a New World,” originally about relationships and defining moments in people’s lives. Miss Richard has rearranged the music and lyrics and changed the setting to the war in Iraq and the Washington metropolitan area. (The show cleverly opens up amid the hustle and bustle at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.)
“Songs for a New World” depicts the battlefield abroad and at home as a black African-American Soldier (Warren “Wawa” Snipe, a deaf actor and dancer) and a Female Soldier (Debra Buonaccorsi) — characters don’t have names and are just “types” — wrestle with the carnage and bloodshed they witness and the personal battles they fight.
Meanwhile, back in Washington, families and friends deal with the pain of separation, the trauma of returning from military service physically and mentally challenged and also being caught in a war they may or may not support. There appears to be only one “hawk,” a Politician (Lanny Slusher) from the South who is portrayed as a clueless, corrupt blowhard. For everyone else in the show, Iraq is the new Vietnam.
Putting a highly politicized spin on “Songs” heightens and intensifies the drama of the piece, which once was universally about people, love and loss and is now about a specific time and place in present-day America. This bold move is most effective in the show’s quieter scenes, portraying the soldiers simply hanging out together or anxiously on watch as they stirringly express their doubts and persistent sense of wonder in the songs “Over” (ensemble member Joe Peck has an exquisite, plaintive moment) and “On the Deck of a Spanish Sailing Ship: 1492.”
Rob McQuay, playing a Radical, also takes the show to a higher level with searing delivery of his soliloquy song, “King of the World.” These simple scenes are the most striking, especially the Female Soldier’s impassioned spiritual lament “Christmas Lullaby,” which beautifully speaks to our desire to do good and aspire to greatness.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, a lighter note is struck in “She Cries,” in which the Politician and Bartender (Mr. Peck) lament about the mood changes of women while a seen-it-all Secret Service agent sign-interprets the lyrics with a smirky flourish.
Sometimes, however, the concept is pushed to the limit, especially in “The Steam Train,” which has the soldiers executing hokey locomotive moves as if doing a production of “Show Boat” to entertain the troops. Also, why a Mother (Barbara Catrett) would go to an antiwar rally and sit around with a bunch of strangers and gab about her romantic life and choosing material wealth over love — as in the song “Stars and the Moon” — defies logic.
Members of the ensemble serve as Sign Actors, adding fluidity and variety to the production, and there also are projections of the song lyrics on the backdrop — which increases accessibility for the audience but also detracts from the overall power of the show.
Open Circle’s dynamic take on “Songs for a New World” turns what was essentially a mood piece into a strong political statement on the Iraq war and our participation in it. It also insightfully comments on the challenges facing disabled veterans returning from the war and learning to cope beyond the walls of Walter Reed Army Medical Center. They’ll need more than songs to brave this new world.
WHAT: “Songs for a New World,” music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown
WHERE: Open Circle Theatre at Round House Theatre Silver Spring, 8641 Colesville Road, Silver Spring
WHEN: Thursdays through Saturdays 8 p.m.; Sundays 2 and 7:30 p.m.; through Aug. 26.
TICKETS: $15 to $30
WEB SITE: www.opencircletheatre.org
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS