Review: Joyously Rediscovering ‘Songs for a New World’

There are plenty of musicals that welcome every bell and whistle that a director can throw at them — shows that, in the spareness of a concert performance, set spectators to dreaming about how gorgeous a full production might be.

Then there are rarer creatures that demand simplicity above all — shows that find their true best form in concert. Jason Robert Brown’s “Songs for a New World” is one of these, currently flourishing in a glorious Encores! Off-Center iteration, savvily directed by Kate Whoriskey at New York City Center. In desperate need of a restorative evening? Here’s one.

Mr. Brown was a floppy-haired 25-year-old when this revue had its Off Broadway premiere in 1995, with him at the onstage piano. A collection of stylistically varied songs that mean to be connected but aren’t, this is the show that added the cabaret favorite “Stars and the Moon” to the canon.

It was his first musical, three years before “Parade,” and it’s the work of a young composer-lyricist doing what young artists do: flex their muscles, imitate their elders, feel their way toward a voice of their own. These songs are, in effect, Mr. Brown’s baby pictures, and from the first piano notes of the buoyant opening number, “The New World,” this concert displays them in a clear and warming light.

The stellar cast — and a knockout performance by Mykal Kilgore, in the role Billy Porter played in the original production — is crucial to that. So is the understated approach of Ms. Whoriskey and the music director, Tom Murray. For all the richness of Mr. Brown’s new orchestrations, and the vitality of a five-person dance ensemble choreographed by Rennie Harris, this staging smartly errs on the side of less is more.