Although “Songs for a New World” does not have an actual plot, it does have a premise that is relatable to anyone.
“It has an overall theme of the moments that push you toward a new beginning or ‘new world,’” said Kristin Van Sickle, who is directing the musical on Feb. 10-12 at Milwaukie’s Chapel Theatre.
Van Sickle, vocal and musical theater teacher at Northwest Academy, is also playing a role in the production, something she has dreamed about doing since she was 16.
“It really spoke to me as a young person who was trying to figure out who I was and now, as I am nearing my 40s, it still speaks to me in that same way,” she said.
“I just have more life experience behind the music and the stories now,” she added.
“Songs for a New World” is a contemporary song-cycle written by Jason Robert Brown. The show is made up of 17 songs that vary in style from pop, jazz, gospel and musical theater. Many of them are sung by one singer who represents a different character in each song.
There are only four actors in the entire show and their roles are Man 1, Woman 1, Man 2 and Woman 2, so it leaves the songs and characters up for interpretation by the actor, she said.
It all came about when Northwest Academy offered teachers there a Creative Production Grant, which Van Sickle applied for and received to acquire the rights to the show and to pay for the venue. The independent middle and high school college-preparatory program aims to inspire students to learn and achieve through its unique academic and arts partnership.
Casting the show
“The cast came together rather organically. I knew that I wanted to work with people who were really excited about the show and who were professionals in their 30s and 40s,” Van Sickle said.
Her friend Joshua Huppert was one of the people who gave her the idea to do the show, so he was immediately cast as Man 2, and Van Sickle had already planned to play Woman 1.
“My friend and go-to pianist David Saffert was already on-board to play piano and lead the band, so I asked him for some suggestions for our Woman 2 and he thought Courtney Freed would be perfect,” Van Sickle said.
“I had seen her perform around town and, knowing her voice, totally agreed,” she said.
Freed then suggested that Kimo Camat be cast as Man 1, so Van Sickle reached out to him after looking up some videos of him singing, and they hit it off right away.
“The band is a group of guys that I work with at the school and have done gigs with. they also just happen to be some of the best musicians in town, so we are lucky to have them,” she said.
Although Van Sickle loves the songs that she sings, she said her absolute favorite song in the show is Camat’s “King of the World,” noting that “it has a really complex beat and movement, and the lyrics are some of the best in the show.”
She added, “Kimo brings a lot of care to that song, as it is from the perspective of a man who had everything and lost it all and is in prison. It is heartbreaking and yet somehow full of hope.”
Van Sickle directed “Matilda the Musical” for Imagine Theater at the Chapel Theatre venue back in December 2021 and loved the space.
“In that show, we had 30 kids involved, so it was pretty full and we had to be creative with our staging to make everyone and everything fit. The whole time we were there I kept dreaming of a small and intimate show in that space,” she said.
A few months later Van Sickle saw a friend perform with Trip the Dark Dance Company at Chapel Theatre.
“It was small and intimate with drinks being served, and exactly the type of performance event I had pictured putting on. It was a lovely and relaxing evening of top-notch art,” Van Sickle said.
When “Songs for a New World” came together, “I wanted to recreate that type of experience in that space with a musical. It also helps that Corinn DeTorres and Dug Martel are incredible to work with and make you feel very supported when you are using their venue,” Van Sickle said.
“The biggest challenge has been self-producing, directing and acting in the show. It is a lot to balance and a lot of places to be in at once,” Van Sickle said.
She and her husband are doing all of the ticketing and social media at the same time as she is learning all of the music to perform, and her husband is playing drums.
“I am also blocking all of the scenes and creating lighting plots. It's a lot, but so fun to see it all come together,” she said, adding that she is lucky to have the support of her husband and her sons, who are helping edit videos and putting together social media posts.
“We did a preview show for all of the students at Northwest Academy; that has been one of the most rewarding parts of this process,” Van Sickle said.
“I got to share my voice and all of our hard work with the middle and high school kids that I spend so much time coaching and teaching,” she said,
“They were all overwhelmed to see such high-level professional singers and actors at their school. It was truly amazing.”
‘Labor of love’
“Songs for a New World” has “been a labor of love and a way for me to reconnect to a part of myself that I lost,” Van Sickle said.
She noted that she has been working with students and directing and music directing for so long that she stopped auditioning for shows.
“I lost confidence in myself. Taking this step forward and getting to be on stage with these amazingly talented people has revived that confidence and excitement for performing.”
Van Sickle added, “It has been my new beginning and I am so grateful. I think that anyone who sees this show will feel that same sense of excitement and inspiration.”