By Kathleen Takarabe
Special to the Rafu
Last Saturday, I had the pleasure of taking in “Songs for a New World,” from Yes And… Productions, a thoroughly enjoyable experience of witnessing a cast of four belt out some very complex and beautifully written music.
The talent of these Asian American professionals cannot go unnoticed. Producers Helen Ota and Michael Palma have done a fine job of pulling together a team that delivers. Randy Guiaya and Myra Cris Ocenar join Ota and Palma in playing numerous roles as actors and singers.
The show, written by Jason Robert Brown in 1995 and directed here by Peter Kuo, is running through Sunday at the modern, 200-seat theater of the National Center for the Preservation of Democracy in Little Tokyo. Upon entering this steeply seated theater, it’s immediately evident that there is no set. The small black stage is empty except for the small team of four musicians nestled against the wall. The performers enter the stage wearing basic black.
From the first captivating song by the entire cast proves that no elaborate set is needed. The talent alone must carry the show, and does so without complaint. The musicians play beautifully and the voices and emotions of these performers are more than sufficient to musically convey the very real struggles people go through in life.
If you are expecting a cohesive story line, you may be disappointed. Each song presents it’s own story, woven together lightly by music and a hint of a theme. However, if you are expecting to be entertained by a wonderfully played, sung, and conducted performance, then you will be quite pleased with “Songs for a New World.”
A large part of Act I felt as if we were getting a slice of life of various New Yorkers. It’s an enjoyable ride from the humorous rendition of a wealthy socialite on the ledge of a building (Ota) to the heartfelt performance of a woman justifying the abandonment of her husband (Ocenar.) Palma is an entertaining, adorable, quirky young man in his solo, “She Cries.” Completely delightful is a cast of cynical, energetic hobos, dancing and singing “The River Won’t Flow.”
There are occasional awkwardly placed musical numbers, but musical director Lisa Joe effectively creates transitions where there doesn’t seem to be any. Though most of the scenes offer a look at the trials of modern day characters, there are also perspectives of the historical lives of Christopher Columbus and Betsy Ross.
Completely unexpected in Act II is a song by the fictional Mrs. Claus, who appears quite embittered with her marriage. Though it seems a bit whimsical and out of place (it is sandwiched between two touching dramatic scenes), Ota’s performance is hilarious and the comic relief welcomed. A favorite is the climactic “Flying Home” by Randy Guiaya whose vocal range and quality are outstanding and leave the audience moved.
There is something for everyone in this show that tackles the seriousness of war, as well as the hope of a newborn baby. It is touching, yet comical. The ensemble pieces are dynamic, with powerful harmonies as inspirational as the stories themselves. There is a special connectedness of this cast in what can be considered a disconnected show. The stories do not take the viewer through to a conclusion, but rather are more like real life; in process, always finding ways to cope and move forward.
The cohesiveness comes in the realization that things can change in a moment. The question is: how do we respond? The answer is conveyed in the final number, “Hear My Song,” which suggests one should never give up. The song pledges, “It’ll help you believe in tomorrow…” This talented cast does just that. They help us to find hope in the midst of the struggle.
Don’t miss the final performances of “Songs for a New World” this weekend. You may find a new song for your own world.
“Songs for a New World” ends this weekend with performances Friday and Saturday at 8 pm, and Sunday at 2 pm. Tickets are $35 for opening night, $25 general, and $20 for students, seniors, JANM members and groups of 10+. The National Center for the Preservation of Democracy is located at 111 N. Central Ave., Los Angeles. To purchase tickets, visit www.BrownPaperTickets.com/78295 or call (800) 838-3006.