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Swift Creek Mill's "Songs for a New World" is a collection of hits with just a few misses. 

Short Story Songs

Even if you love to read novels, sometimes it's fun to pick up a book of short stories. A good short story can illuminate a vivid slice of life in just a few pages, and a bad short story, well, at least it doesn't go on too long.

"Songs for a New World," now playing at the Swift Creek Mill Theatre, is like a musical book of short stories. The show consists of four actors performing a series of 16 songs with no plot or consistent characters holding them together. A vague idea about life-changing turning points provides the through line but, rather than trying to explicate that from the songs, you're better off enjoying each as a story in itself.

As written by Jason Robert Brown, who went on to win a Tony for the score of 1998's "Parade," many of these stories are knockouts — engrossing, moving and surprising. A couple of them fail due to lack of sufficient context, and a couple more are just mediocre. Still, the few times Brown proves insufficient as a lyricist, he succeeds as a tunesmith, crafting some powerful piano-driven songs with appealing melodies and some unexpected rhythms. In the Mill's production, musical director Paul Deiss and his peppy three-piece combo infuse the up-tempo numbers with satisfying vigor and the slower songs with appropriate emotional texture.

Forced to bring cohesion to this wide-ranging revue, director Tom Width has wisely chosen a cast of highly adaptable actors. Susan Sanford gets the best opportunity to show her substantial range, from the comically neglected housewife in "Just One Step" to the sadly self-aware woman of "Stars and the Moon." Sanford also shines in the only pure comic-relief number of the night, "Surabaya Santa." The song works both as a theater inside joke (referring to "Surabaya Johnny," an old song from a Bertold Brecht musical), and as a playful skewering of life among Santa and the elves.

Fernando Rivadeneira can belt out a song with the best of them so it's unfortunate that he gets stuck with two of the least engaging solos, the clumsily choreographed "Steam Train," and "King of the World," a decent song rendered indecipherable due to lack of context. Only in the penultimate number, "Flying Home," does he finally have the opportunity to soar and he takes full advantage.

Kara Charise Harman and Mark Scott have strong individual moments but transcend all expectations in their duet, "I'd Give It All For You," an impressive tour through the complexities of love. Brown has filled this five-minute song with enough detail and nuance for a whole play and Width's sensitive staging makes it even more effective.

The pictures-on-a-pole props and brick backdrops in Width's scenic design are serviceable but also reminded me of old television variety specials. That, plus the "jazz hands"-intensive choreography by Robin Arthur, gives this "new world" show a decidedly outdated feel. Still, "Songs for a New World" succeeds as a showcase for Brown's talent, thanks to the confident execution by the entire Mill crew. His many good songs are illuminating and his few bad ones, well, they don't go on too
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