SONGS FOR A NEW WORLD, Apple Tree Theatre. The musical-theater world is always on the lookout for catchy melodies, interesting but not too adventurous harmonies, and expressive but not mawkish lyrics; if a new songwriter doesn't sound like he's imitating Stephen Sondheim, so much the better--and rarer. Jonathan (Rent) Larson was the guy to watch until he suddenly died; now eyes are fixed on Jason Robert Brown, whose shot at Broadway comes this month with Parade, a Lincoln Center/Livent coproduction directed by Harold Prince.
The 16 songs in Brown's 1995 theatrical song cycle--receiving a slick, impressively performed midwest premiere under Stevi Marks's direction--display his talent for funky, Stevie Wonder-style jazz grooves, and a few show he can convey character through well-structured lyrics. The best of these go here to the marvelous Hollis Resnik, who gives them depth and fire: in the scary, sad, and absurdly funny "Just One Step," she's a suicidal wife standing on a window ledge; in the ruminative "Stars and the Moon," she's a woman reflecting on her choice of comfort over emotion in marriage; and in the hilarious Kurt Weill spoof "Surabaya-Santa" she's a long-suffering Mrs. Claus bidding auf Wiedersehen to her neglectful hubby. Andre Garner, Cindy Marchionda, and Dan Sklar are all strong, but their songs too often get bogged down in labored earnestness or New Age platitudes. Time will tell whether Brown will bolster his facile, inventive musical talent with greater dramatic subtlety as a wordsmith.