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Silence speaks volumes in 'Songs for a New World'

There’s great volume in silence, freedom in the void. When all you can hear is the faint whisper of an action, a wisp of movement, a breath of hope, all seems clear, and all seems possible. Such esotericism is bold for a piece of art, where the artist’s own points are on the cutting room floor, left there so the audience may flourish. Such a premise is downright unheard of in musical theater.

In Michael Walline’s production of Jason Robert Brown’s song cycle, “Songs for a New World,” currently on stage at O’Connell & Company, these golden moments of silence are blasted into awareness, as if by foghorn. Come, relinquish your passive viewership, it screams from the boat’s deck. Come, tell us your dreams, it signals from the canal.

Brown’s show exists on a figurative boat of endless venture. It travels, song by song, around the world and throughout time. Walline’s staging, including his own choreography, casts away each song as if marooned by a deserted or lost vessel.

Interludes and scene changes feel glacial at first until you notice your heartbeat slow in the process, where it’s OK to take a few extra beats of silence, to look up and notice a few extra layers of color in Seth Tyler Black’s beautiful set, to feel something about yourself amid these vast and various stories. Each break brings us to a new shore, where a new song sends us on another leg of this trip.

It’s exquisite the way Walline puts this all together. Musical theater is rarely this interpretive, on this or most other local stages, and that’s a shame not only for the cult fans who clamor for such a production, but for every other theatergoer who needs, every once in a while, a new way to see things. It’s theatrical yoga. It doesn’t all make sense, and it’s not all comfortable, but it balances itself as moving parts stay together.

Along the way we’re treated to some delicious sights. Victoria Peréz sings comically from high atop her 57th floor penthouse in “Just One Step,” demanding that her rich husband pay for the life she feels she deserves, or else. Others realize they want smaller treasures, like in Loraine O’Donnell’s reflective “Stars and the Moon,” arguably Brown’s best song and a modern cabaret standard. O’Donnell lands this song with fitting regret, aided by Walline’s frameable closing button of a pose.

Walline’s modern-dance roots inform a great deal of his eight cast members’ performances, whether it’s in a slowly constructed tableau by song’s end, or in an impeccably timed glancing look.

This ship is run by song, and each bodily sway follows that lead. Music director Michael Hooker’s band sounds phenomenal, carrying off Brown’s often dated, but well-constructed, modern jazz with aplomb. Despite that, and the talents of his capable cast, too many ensemble choruses suffer from poor mixing. These missteps are never sure bets; was it an off night, or could they not hear each other? Who knows? Solos are the highlight here.

Dudney Joseph’s percussive “Stream Train,” in its peppy, sizzling modern-jazz, gives “Starlight Express” a run for its money. Joseph is perhaps the most thoroughly expressive in this ensemble, the most on point. Even in his potentially upstaging turn as a voguing German reindeer – go with it, remember: be one with the ship – in O’Donnell’s Kurt Weillesque “Surabaya-Santa,” he is nevertheless committed. (O’Donnell holds her own, even in a bizarro number.)

Frankly, even though many of these disparate songs work, what works even better are the beats between. You can get lost visually wandering the stage, full of folded pieces of paper, filled with submitted words and influences from audience members, meant to suggest our tininess among the beaches’ millions of grains. Or in Emma Schimminger’s magnificent lighting, which relies on shadows to shed light on the unknown.

These distractions (from the music, at least) are designed to do just that. It takes some practice to let everything settle into place. Commitment rewards the patient, however. There’s something loud around the corner, if you’re willing to listen.

THEATER REVIEW

3 stars

What: “Songs for a New World”

Where: O’Connell & Company, Park School, 4265 Harlem Road, Amherst

When: Through Feb. 22

Info: 848-0800 or www.oconnellandcompany.com

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