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In the early 1990s, Devanand Janki was a young actor in New York when his roommate, Andréa Burns, invited him to the first reading of a show in development.
“I remember her telling me, ‘Oh, a friend of mine from summer camp has written this musical and he wants me to do the reading,’” Janki said. “I’ll never forget going to, I think it was some dingy New York rehearsal studio. I just remember being like, ‘What is this music?’ I just fell in love with it then.”
The show: “Songs for a New World,” the debut musical from composer Jason Robert Brown, a two-time Tony winner for “Parade” and “The Bridges of Madison County.”
“Songs for a New World” premiered Off-Broadway in 1995, with a cast that included Burns and Billy Porter. Now, Janki is directing and choreographing the show for Village Theatre, in its first full production since pandemic closures in March 2020. “Songs for a New World” is on stage in Issaquah through Feb. 13 before moving to Everett from Feb. 18-March 13.
A song cycle consisting of 15 numbers connected thematically but not narratively, “Songs for a New World” showcases Brown’s ability to easily traverse genres, moving from jazzy piano-bar pop to soaring gospel to moody cabaret stylings. It’s a more compact musical than you’re used to seeing at Village, with a cast of only four people and a minimal set by Burton Yuen. But Janki doesn’t want it to feel small.
“It’s done usually like in concert form,” he said. “I’ve really gone and been a lot more specific with it, in terms of approaching it like 15 short stories. We’re really taking a strong point of view on each little story and staging it in a different way, so it feels like a show.
“A lot of the songs are people in their lives at a turning point not knowing what to do. What do we do in our lives when things go wrong, or things don’t turn out as we planned? I was interested in, who do we tell those stories to? Who do we feel comfortable being the recipient?”
The music, conducted by Tim Symons, is still the focal point of the show, with each member of Village’s cast — Maria Habeeb, Alexandria J. Henderson, Cal Mitchell and Tyler Dobies — afforded heart-in-throat solos.
Brown’s songs — musically irresistible, but often laced with lyrical irony — frequently function as stand-alone stories without any help, like the razor’s edge between comedy and tragedy in romantic plaint “Stars and the Moon” or the outright comedy in the empty threats of “Just One Step,” both performed impressively by local star Henderson.
But Janki’s directorial choices also fill out the context of some numbers, adding a therapist’s listening ear to Habeeb’s gorgeously melancholy “I’m Not Afraid of Anything” or the self-inflicted pain of social-media stalking in Dobies’ tale of heartbreak “The World Was Dancing.” Some numbers are more radically transformed, like Henderson’s “The Flagmaker,” refashioned from its Revolutionary War roots into a lament for mothers of sons killed by police.
“We really tried to bring a contemporary lens,” Janki said. “We really are setting it in 2022.”
Among the various contemporary themes not referenced explicitly in Village’s production: the pandemic. But, like everywhere else, its effect made itself known at the show’s opening-night performance, where Village’s Francis J. Gaudette Theatre sat half empty, hosting an uncharacteristically small but still enthusiastic audience.
In another era, Brown’s occasional penchant for big sentimental proclamations might grate, but right now, when nearly every public event still feels a little precarious, the lyrics of show finale “Hear My Song” and its refrain of “You’ll be fine” are a balm.
By Jason Robert Brown. Through Feb. 13 at Francis J. Gaudette Theatre, 303 Front St. N., Issaquah; 425-392-2202. Feb. 18-March 13 at Everett Performing Arts Center, 2710 Wetmore Ave., Everett; 425-257-8600. Tickets $27-$82; villagetheatre.org
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