Distinctive, artistic “Songs for a New World” in Sheboygan
SHEBOYGAN, Wisconsin (WFRV) – It’s one thing to put on a show. It’s another to take control of a show.
The latter is performing with Sheboygan Theater Company’s “Songs for a New World” as the company comes back from the clutches of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Much of it is created specifically for production that continues for six more performances at the Leslie W. Johnson Theater, which has special needs and possibilities.
What is happening is more than a presentation of Jason Robert Brown songs. These songs don’t tell a story but a series of stories that revolve around people at a yes / no / maybe moment in life or thought.
There are more than four performers singing and acting.
Woven in is a movement featuring two dancers. Sometimes the singers / actors are also part of the fabric of the movement. The dancers sometimes mirror the movements of another. Sometimes the six performers add elements of percussion in unison.
Everyone plays barefoot except for three players in one scene – to accompany the story of a basketball player.
Everyone wears plain and off-white clothing. It is reminiscent of a peasant or homemade look.
The dominant color of the performance floor is gray, with the exception of the white edges.
The theater has an amphitheater feel to the area for the audience, who watch a combination of performance spaces. The closest is a semicircle with the gray floor with a few steps on either side. To the rear on a flat front stage is a built setup with, below, a skeletal framed area for the six members of the orchestra and, above, an arched staircase and banister leading to an open bridge. with a suggestion of a balcony to the public right. The appearance of this space is specific to the Sheboygan Theater Company’s “Songs for a New World” production.
The whole aura of production is high level art.
Much of that probably relies on Amanda Ellis, the engaged director who also incorporated much of the choreography. Amanda Ellis once directed for Sheboygan Theater Company, so she knew the demands of the space. She took control of it, probably with collaborative ideas as well.
It was all a treat on opening night Friday – except that the sound was severely unbalanced during the first half of the performance. The orchestra overwhelmed the singers. Colorful voices and words were in tatters. Understanding the experiences of the person (s) singing was a frustrating struggle.
Adjustments were made to the intermission, and vocal clarity came out; the listening difficulties have subsided a lot.
The show is an ambitious project. The characters are complex and at a demanding point in their lives, including navigating to a new world, sewing the flag of a new nation built on sacrifice, and envisioning better through basketball. Jason Robert Brown has a way of sound portraiture that’s inspired by jazz here, melancholy ballad there, and rat-a-tat spitfire note-taking there.
The signature song, “The New World,” sits warmly and invitingly on the ear. The song is used in the bindings, bringing another character to a moment of truth – or hoped-for truth.
Ava Childs is portrayed in Sensitive Songs, Jon Delray in Force Songs, Evan Vorpahl in Youthful Flair, and Kathleen Erdmann in Explosive Energy.
Every singer has wow moments. The wow-ests are two by Kathleen Erdmann, one of whom was destroyed in the first half. In “Just One Step” in the first act, she threatens her husband with a jump from a balcony – acting / singing like everyone is doing it. In the second act, the “as all come out” applies to Mrs. Santa Claus, who is once again annoyed by Nick for leaving her alone on Christmas Eve.
The dance adds rewarding layers. It’s nice. It flows. It’s also demanding as Holly Green and Autumn Schultz often apply the same fluid movements in different areas of the performance space. Sometimes the two mix with the singers, creating an image of a moving image.
This production is also broadcast live. In person, the audience can grasp the entirety of this complex thought-work creation that is specific to this business and space.
What happens is distinctive – when the sound level is right.
Creative: Songs and Lyrics – Jason Robert Brown; director / choreographer – Amanda Ellis; assistant choreographer – Holly Green; musical director – John Tengowski; production manager – Jackie Blindauer; assistant manager – Kim Koeppen; set designer – Nan Gibson; costume designer – Cheryl Feld; lighting designer – Lisa Stewart; lighting assistant – Valerie Hoffman; spot operator – Dan Hennell, Katie O’Regan; sound designer – Matthew Brulla; assistant sound designer / board-operator – Hilarie Mukavitz; Property Team Leader – Lisa Masbruch; master painter – Nan Gibson; master carpenter – Phil Zimmerman; hairdresser / make-up artist – Cathy Perronne
Woman 1 – Ava Childs
Man 1 – Jon Delray
Woman 2 – Kathleen Erdmann
Man 2 – Evan Vorpahl
Dancer 1 – Holly Green
Dancer 2 – Schultz Fall
Orchestra: John Tengowski (musical director / piano), Sandy Kasten (violin), Paula Harder (auxiliary percussion), Jake Puestow (guitar), Johnny Montenz (drums), William DeBlaey (bass)
Duration of operation: One hour, 40 minutes
Remaining performance: In person and broadcast live at 7:30 p.m. on October 2; 2 p.m. on October 3; 7:30 p.m. October 7-8; 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. October 9
“The New World” – Company
“On the deck of a Spanish sailboat, 1492” – Man 1 and Company
“Just one step” – Woman 2
“I’m not afraid of anything” – Woman 1
“The river will not flow” – Man 1, Man 2, Company
“Transition I” – Woman 1
“The stars and the moon” – Woman 2
“She’s crying” – Male 2
“The Steam Train” – Man 1 and Company
“The world was dancing” – Male 2, Female 1 and Company
“Surabaya-Santa Claus” – Woman 2
“Christmas Lullaby” – Woman 1
“King of the World” – Male 1
“I would give everything for you” – Male 2 and Female 1
“Transition II” – Male 1
“The Flagmaker, 1775” – Woman 2
“Flying Home” – Male 1 and Company
“Final transition: the new world” – Company
“Hear My Song” – Company
FOLLOWING: “Elf The Musical”, December 3-11.
THE PLACE: The 870-seat Leslie W. Johnson Theater at Horace Mann Middle School is a one-of-a-kind theater space for Northeastern Wisconsin. Its layout creates special requirements that can lead to awards in unique theatrical performances. The spacious facility is shaped like an amphitheater with steep stairs. The seats are red. The ceiling is high. The first row of seats is at the performance level, which is a semicircle. A pre-stage (flat front) stage area extends across the back line of the semicircle. The school was built in 1970. The combined hall and theater aura is that of a community gathering place.
THE PEOPLE: Leslie W. Johnson was a superintendent of Sheboygan Schools. Horace Mann (1796-1859) was a leader in the development of public education in the United States, including the teaching of teachers.