GLOUCESTER — The title alone suggests the tendency toward grandiosity that made composer-lyricist Jason Robert Brown such a prime target in “Forbidden Broadway Comes Out Swinging!’’, the satirical revue that parodied him two years ago as a self-besotted egotist.
But “Songs for a New World,’’ a theatrical song cycle elegantly staged by director Robert Walsh at Gloucester Stage Company, also demonstrates why Brown began to attract a devoted following with this 1995 debut.
The show is loosely structured around a series of defining moments faced by unnamed characters who have decisions to make on what amount to circuitous journeys of self-discovery. At Gloucester Stage, they are portrayed by an appealing cast that includes Broadway veteran Barbara Walsh, Wendy Waring, Chris Pittman, Nyah Macklin, and Jack Donahue.
For good and ill, the lineaments of the Brown works that came later — his Tony-winning score for “Parade,’’ his autobiographical “The Last Five Years,’’ and a musical adaptation of “The Bridges of Madison County’’ that won him two more Tonys — are discernible in “Songs for a New World.’’
As the performers move adroitly among the pop, gospel, jazz, and funk styles of Brown’s score, the composer’s bountiful melodic gift is constantly in evidence. So is his careful attention to craft and his romantic sensibility; only in his mid-20s when “Songs for a New World’’ premiered, Brown was already trenchant on the subject of love and its precariousness. Then and now, his willingness to swing for the fences, emotionally speaking, positions him squarely within the most expressive traditions of musical theater.
But there are times in “Songs for a New World’’ when Brown’s lyrics drift into the realm of gauzy abstraction, pseudo-poetic solemnity, or predictable imagery, landing about half an inch from cliché. Stars, moon, sun, rivers, mountains, sky: All are invoked here. A good rule of thumb is that unless your name is Oscar Hammerstein II, songwriters are ill-advised to roam through the Great Outdoors in search of inspiration.
That said, “Stars and the Moon’’ is one of the stronger songs in the revue. Performed by Walsh, who gives it a rueful, poignant edge, the tune captures a woman’s belated realization that she made a terrible mistake by passing up adventure and the possibility of true love in favor of wealth and security. (A Tony nominee for her performance as Trina in 1992’s “Falsettos,’’ Barbara Walsh is the cousin of director Robert Walsh.)
Throughout “Songs for a New World,’’ the songs that resonate are those that are similarly rooted in the specifics of character, behavior, and motivation. A sharply etched personality emerges in Waring’s rendition of “I’m Not Afraid of Anything,’’ in which a woman voices her determination not to be constrained by the fears that have inhibited her family and friends (“I’m not afraid of anything/Be it growing old or going out of style/I’m not afraid of anything/Who would give up what they want without a trial?’’).
Pittman’s dynamic performance of “The Steam Train’’ gives forceful life to the story of a young basketball player whose fervent hoop dreams are interwoven with the grim realities and steep odds he faces in his home and neighborhood. In “She Cries,’’ Donahue deftly captures the quandary of a man who has tried to end a relationship, only to find his will weakened by his lover’s seemingly strategic tears.
And then Brown delivers something completely different: “Surabaya Santa,’’ a clever spoof of the Brecht-Weill “Surabaya Johnny.’’ Walsh is hilarious as a weary and embittered Mrs. Claus who, after 20 years of an unsatisfying marriage, is heartily sick of being left alone at Christmas while hubby flies off to deliver toys, preen in malls, and generally ho-ho-ho the days away. The song is enjoyable enough to make you wish Brown would loosen up more often, set aside the deep thoughts, and unleash his sense of humor.Don Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.