Who knew that Jason Robert Brown’s 1995 song cycle/musical “Songs for a New World” had become such a beloved classic that fans would whoop at the opening bars of numbers like “Just One Step,” a comical character song about a pampered urban wife trying to get her husband’s attention with a foray onto the ledge of their 57th-story apartment?
But whoop they did at the Encores! staging Wednesday night at New York City Center in an affectionate and well-sung production directed by Kate Whoriskey. (The addition of five modern dancers contributed little to the overall production — aside from helping to fill out the cavernous City Center stage a bit.)
Granted, “Songs” has become a staple of college and amateur theater companies — and some of its tunes have become cabaret-act staples, particularly “Stars and the Moon,” another torch song about a dissatisfied wealthy wife, this one belatedly lamenting the emotional comforts she might be missing after marrying up materially.
Brown, who went on to win Tony Awards for his work on musicals like “Parade” and “The Bridges of Madison County,” showed an early flair for such story songs, as well as for what has become a classic Broadway sound: piano-centered compositions combining pop, gospel and jazz — often in the same song.
But the four-person cast don’t play characters so much as variations on themes of people at heightened moments in their lives: a parent mourning the death of a child in war, a couple after the break-off of an engagement, an ambitious ghetto kid hoping to become a star.
Of the four singers, Mykal Kilgore and Shoshanna Bean get the standout numbers. Kilgore’s Man 1, initially played by Tony winner Billy Porter, skirts the edges of stereotype and cultural appropriation with his songs about overcoming racial and economic disadvantages — but he also gets the most gospel-inflected numbers that showcase Kilgore’s vocal range, gift for “American Idol”-style runs and ability to hold a note for just about ever.
Bean, a veteran of “Hairspray” and “Wicked,” is treated to the funniest and most self-contained of Brown’s story-songs — and she gives them a show-stopping comic brio. She even manages to bully her way through the hilarious Kurt Weill parody “Surabaya-Santa” — a kiss-off song from Mrs. Santa Claus to her neglectful husband — despite a red and faux-furry white costume that threatens to malfunction at any moment.
Newcomer Solea Pfeiffer and “Anything Goes” alum Colin Donnell both sing well, but their material is frankly less interesting — both as narrative and as music. And Brown’s lyrics for their songs range from the generic to the truly pedestrian (“Wait, man / It’s almost too late, man”). They get fewer chances to shine.