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Review: Vocals soar as Shine! Theatre celebrates a ‘New ‘World’ and new mission

THEATER REVIEW

The cast of Shine! Theatre’s “Songs for a New World” is like a gospel choir that brings its congregation both to fervent heights of rapture and worshipful moments of introspection. These four singers pack a vocal wallop. Your ears will ring, and in a good way.

Pictured above: Mady Broach in ‘Songs for a New World.’ Photo: Shine! Theatre

Featuring works by the fiercely talented composer Jason Robert Brown (“Parade,” “13,” “The Last 5 Years,” “The Bridges of Madison County”), the production at the Tower Theatre Lounge, which continues through Sunday, Feb. 16, is a treat for the lush harmonies, snappy lyrics and potent emotional power of the music. Add the chance to hear four talented singers (Mady Broach, Jennifer Myers, Miguel Molinar and Harrison Mills) in an intimate setting, and you end up with a memorable evening.


Related story: IN ‘SONGS FOR A NEW WORLD,’ A MOMENT FOR A TALENTED MIGUEL MOLINAR TO SHINE

A few thoughts:

It’s a song cycle. Rather than a series of tunes linked by a strong narrative, as you’d find in a standard piece of musical theater, the songs in “New World” merely share the same composer, and perhaps a theme. My advice: Don’t clutter your mind in the moment trying to search for or rationalize why Brown put these songs together as he did, but let the music and feelings wash over you. If you come to a thematic revelation by the end, so be it. If not, just appreciate each song for itself and the story it tells. (And, if you still want to ponder the show afterward, you can find much online in which fans dive into deeper meanings.)

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The setting is simple, but there’s a band. Allow me to explain. Director tony sanders (who doesn’t capitalize his name) opts for a limited set and production values, but he obviously splurged in terms of effort and resources in providing a snappy, four-piece band that gives another level of sophistication to the performance, thanks to music director Dakota Simpson and musicians Adam Miller, Riley Reitzel and Nate Grisby. (Actually, as for that simple set, the dominant theme is plastic sheeting, mostly used in abstract form, but also to offer a hint of ship’s masts, which didn’t work well for me. I think I would have preferred a bare stage.)

Shine! Theatre

Miguel Molinar in ‘Songs for a New World.’

Molinar soars. Seriously, his voice is almost otherworldly in terms of range and impact. Molinar, who last wowed audiences with a robust turn as Sancho Panza in Good Company’s “Man of La Mancha,” can belt it out with the best of them, but he also delivers a velvety smooth, effortless falsetto that reminded me of liquid gold. In the standout song “Flying Home,” his big note feels like it pours over the audience. And, most important, he inhabits his characters, a different one for each song. His vocals make the hard sell, and his acting smoothly closes the deal.

Broach is a comic delight. She gets to sing some of the great character songs in the show, particularly “Just One Step” (about a frustrated wife trying to get her husband’s attention) and “Surabaya Santa” (a fractured tale of Mrs. Claus that will most certainly never end up as an adaptation on the Hallmark Channel). She excels at both.


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There’s some awkwardness on stage. While much of the singing is first-rate, some of the interactive moments between cast members feel lacking. The chemistry is awkward between Mills and Myers in “I’d Give it All for You,” particularly when he gets on hands and knees. Myers has a tendency to gaze at a fixed point far above the audience as she sings, making it harder for an emotional connection. In the closing number, the cast needs to be better directed to convey the idea that they all like each other, which is elementary acting, after all.

I don’t like many of the drawn-out endings to the songs. The singers have a tendency to slow the tempos way down as they approach the final notes — oh, my goodness, you could fall through some of those long pauses — as if trying to ratchet up the drama. I found it quite annoying. Yes, I’m biased, because I’m used to the tempos on the show’s two cast albums. Yes, sanders and Simpson get to make their own musical interpretations, but I think you also have to respect the composer’s original intentions. To me, the timing — both comic and dramatic — is integral to these songs, and fiddling with it is a mistake.

It’s wonderful to see Shine! Theatre expand its scope. Shine! is mostly known as a children’s theater, and before this production, I asked Sanders — who is the company’s founder and artistic director — if “Songs for a New World” marked a turning point.

He told me:

“I have been feeling the pull for a while to expand the scope of our titles to include more adult-themed pieces. Honestly, the feedback I have received from quality talent is that youth theater is ‘beneath them.’ It has been increasingly frustrating to find the level of talent that would allow us to put forth product that truly represents Shine! Rebranding the company will address this issue. It also allows us to address more serious, thought-provoking material. Therefore, we intentionally began our rebranding process last season with “Big River.” The inclusion of “Songs for a New World” in this season greatly pushes that agenda forward. It is my hope that by next season the perception of Shine! has been changed.”

That said, the company will keep one foot in educational theater with its School Show Series, which will present high-quality, literature-based titles such as, “Island of the Blue Dolphins,” “A Wrinkle in Time” and “Diary of Anne Frank.”

Overall, “Songs for a New World” is a rousing production and a beautiful example of the impact a small musical can have. After you leave, and the music from the show continues to swirl through your brain, it’s amazing to think that these memorable melodies and feisty harmonies were reenacted by just four people. Not a choir in eight-part harmony, not with a lot of fancy mixing or electronic augmentation, but four voices. This was the first time I got to experience this musical live. It made my World a little bigger.


Show info

‘Songs for a New World,’ 8 p.m. Feb. 14-15, Tower Theatre Lounge, 809 E. Olive Ave. Tickets are $20, $17.50 students and seniors.



Covering the arts online in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond. Lover of theater, classical music, visual arts, the literary arts and all creative endeavors. Former Fresno Bee arts critic and columnist. Graduate of Columbia University and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Excited to be exploring the new world of arts journalism.

donaldfresnoarts@gmail.com

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