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REVIEW: Restarting Songs for a New World (Artistry)

Joey Miller (front, center) crouches in the spotlight in Artistry’s production of Songs for a New World, playing at the Bloomington Center for the Arts through September 26, 2021. The production is dramatically lit by lighting designer Karin Olson. Photo by Lucas Wells.

In the disruptive world of theatre rescheduling and reopening, Artistry has fired its opening season salvo. The Bloomington, MN-based theatre kicked off its 2021-2022 season last night with Jason Robert Brown’s Songs for a New World. As the company’s first major production since Artistic Director Benjamin McGovern announced that he was stepping down last spring, the evening looked and felt very different from business as usual.

One of these differences was the cast of fresh faces: six of the nine singer-actors onstage were making their Artistry debut. After the events of May 2020, many local theatres publicly pledged to hire more BIPOC artists. While the ultimate follow-through remains to be seen, the color wheel at the Bloomington Civic Theatre on Friday night ticked at least one step in that direction.

Dwight Xaveir Leslie (front, left) and Janely Rodriguez (front, right) were two of the artists making their Artistry debut in Songs for a New World. Photo by Lucas Wells.

Another difference came with the manner in which this production was led, with a trio of co-directors: Vanessa Brooke Agnes, Colleen Somerville, and Max Wojtanowicz. Experiments in collective and distributed leadership are enjoying something of a vogue; Red Eye Theater, for example, now has seven artistic directors. If you’re wondering how this affects the onstage product, this production won’t settle any arguments: Songs for a New World is simply the wrong type of show to illustrate most directorial visions, being something of a song cycle and something of a musical revue. This is not to say that individual songs can’t be fun – many are, very much – but if you’re specifically hankering for long emotional arcs and multifaceted narratives in your theatrical diet, this probably isn’t the show for you right now.

Dwight Xavier Leslie (front, center) strides across a stage of chairs-upon-the-stage. Photo by Lucas Wells.

Musically, opening night was somewhat uneven, with several of the numbers not having gelled just yet and some lyric intelligibility issues. The evening’s standouts included notable performances by the sweet-voiced tenor Brandon A. Jackson, soulful stylings by Rajané Katurah, and dance captain Elly Stahlke. Deirdre Cochran’s rendition of “Surabaya Santa” – a local cabaret favorite – had the audience convulsing with laughter, and when conductor Anita Ruth took the piano for one intimate number, some audience members could be seen brushing away tears. Katurah’s “Stars and the Moon” is the emotional center of Act 1.

One of the central themes of Songs for a New World is the decision to change. Where that will lead – for audiences, for Artistry, and for the theatre community writ large – is still unclear. If you would like to laugh and cry with strangers and leave less weighted by the world, however, you could do worse than taking a trip down to Bloomington.

8/9ths of the company of Artistry’s Songs for a New World, led by Dance Captain Elly Stahlke (right). The scenic concept was created by Katie Phillips. Photo by Lucas Wells.

Artistry’s production of Songs for a New World runs through September 26 at the Bloomington Civic Theatre in Bloomington, MN.

Basil Considine