Play Review: Gateway’s ‘Songs for a New World’ Explores Impacts of COVID-19

Morgan Billings Smith, Caleb Mitchell, Alyssa Wray, Mary Kate Moore, Christian Douglas, Jordan Goodsell in "Songs for a New World" at The Gateway
Morgan Billings Smith, Caleb Mitchell, Alyssa Wray, Mary Kate Moore, Christian Douglas, Jordan Goodsell in "Songs for a New World" at The Gateway

It’s been 16 long months, but the stage at the barn in Bellport known as The Gateway Playhouse has finally been reawakened. The organization may not have been able to put on shows over the duration, but they kept busy with virtual learning and theater programs, a successful run with a drive-in series that boasted over 100 movie titles, and they even hosted a drive-thru Haunted House at Southaven Park in Brookhaven.

Always a pioneer in musical theater, The Gateway’s official start to their 2021 season is a new adaptation of Songs for a New World, a synthesis of the show’s many iterations since its inception in 1995 with original music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown. With this production, The Gateway is immediately tackling the issue at hand, COVID-19, and flashes of how it is, how it was and how single choices, brief moments in life, can affect the course of the future.

Songs for a New World is not a musical, nor does it have a plot. It is a production based on a theme told through the power of music—the power of songs and lyrics when everything is stripped of glamour and bright lights and the truth is laid bare, whether ugly or beautiful.

In the first act, we are faced with COVID-19 patients struggling to breathe and dying next to nurses covered from head to toe with pictures of themselves on their uniforms so the patient can kind of see who is with them. The loneliness of nurse and patient is raw, and comes alive through the lyrics.

We’ve all lived through this pandemic in our own unique way, and the cast brings all of it together on stage—the emotion reverberates through the audience, causing hairs on necks to stand at attention as this truly profound experience unfolds before us. The culmination of months of fear, doubt, indecision, hope, death—the whole gamut of pandemic life is displayed in all its glory and, yes, all of it is ugly.

It’s a reminder of all we have lived through individually and opens our eyes to the experiences of others—a theater experience not based on whimsy, but of human nature and the reminder of our ability to rise above all things.

The six-person cast is made up of truly powerful singers who play numerous roles throughout the production—a seamless ebb and flow of who is who revealed in the lyrics, so pay attention.

Most notable in the cast is Alyssa Wray, fresh off the top 10 of the most recent season of American Idol. Her solid set of pipes are a crowd pleaser, and she can belt out a note to the moon, earning some hoots from the audience for her fantastic presence and voice.

In her bio in the playbill, she shares a quote that resonates, “When words fail, music speaks,” and that seems fitting for this production and in this new world we all find ourselves living in. With the entire show presented through song and lyrics, it must be a challenge for these performers to maintain their voices throughout, but Wray’s voice never wavered unintentionally. The raw emotion of “I’m not Afraid of Anything” might have audience members holding back tears.

In the jarring moment we realize a pampered housewife is threatening to jump off a ledge in “Just One Step,” performed by the tiny powerhouse Morgan Billings Smith, we are brought back to the theme of the show: The moments in time that define us. Next, the sweetly melodious voice of Mary Kate Moore tells a story of lost love and the choice that altered her fate.

The surprise of the night came in the form of Caleb Mitchell, a senior at Middle Tennessee State University, whose voice captivated and inspired. Sometimes low-pitched and other moments reaching a high falsetto, the emotion he was able to convey in his songs was nothing short of magical. The talented singer blew the audience’s collective mind in the number “Flying Home,” a sad, strong and inspiring song that tells a bittersweet story and, again, how one choice, one moment in time, can set the course of one man’s future.

Rounding out the cast were Christian Douglas and Jordan Goodsell. In the second act Douglas plays a gay man in the late ’70s/early ’80s when the global AIDS pandemic was all people were talking about. The parallels between that pandemic and the current one are not lost on us and really make you think again about what we have all lived through and what we are still living through as we navigate through our lives.

Having missed live theater in the past year, it was refreshing to be back and in the audience, holding a freshly printed playbill, enjoying a show not built on a specific storyline or tap dancing. It was an ode to human perseverance—to the spirit inside us all that gives us the strength to make those life-defining choices, whatever they may be. We will still be here, we will still fight, and we will continue to live each moment and be thankful we are back here, watching an amazing cast of performers sing their hearts out. Songs for a New World is the necessary transition we all need and a choice you’ll not regret. Catch it playing now through July 31 at The Gateway Playhouse.

Although the 2021 season got off to a later than usual start, there are many exciting performances to look forward to from the talented staff at The Gateway, from the lighting crew to the ushers, the box office staff to The Gateway producer Paul Allan himself, everyone is thrilled to be back in action.

Million Dollar Quartet will play at The Gateway Playhouse August 4–21. The Gateway production of hit Broadway show Newsies can be seen at the Patchogue Theatre August 25–September 11, followed by A Gentlemen’s Guide to Love and Murder November 17–December 4. Their Holiday Spectacular on Ice is back December 17–January 1, 2022.

For tickets and information, visit thegateway.org.

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