It’s hard not to like a show as life-affirming as William Finn and James Lapine’s A New Brain. Born out of a brain tumor scare that Finn faced, this musical follows Gordon (Joe Pace) a young songwriter stuck writing treacly numbers on a children’s show starring Mr. Bungee (Doug Chitel), its frog-headed host. When he is struck down with a brain problem that forces him to undergo surgery that may cure him or leave him a vegetable, his family and friends rally around him. His mother (Lois S. Hart) plans to make everything better by sheer force of will. His boyfriend, Roger (Shad Olsen), stays mellow and calm as a placid sea. His best friend Rhoda (Stephanie Wilberding) just tries to be upbeat. But ultimately, it is up to Gordon to face his own mortality and decide if life is worth living and if he’s going to write all the songs that are still waiting inside him.
Finn, best known for his Falsettos Trilogy and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, is a versatile composer and he plays with many genres and styles in A New Brain. The book, however, is a little weak and at times the show feels more like an extended cabaret act. Some of this is on purpose - a Chicago-inspired segment while Gordon is in a coma is a good example – but in general, it makes the show seem a little choppy.
Director Brian Swasey once again demonstrates that he is adept at staging musicals. Just like last season’s Forever Plaid, Swasey has taken a light touch, confident that the actors and the material are capable of reaching the audience without too much help. He also proves a decent choreographer; his work on two songs in particular, ‘Sitting Becalmed in the Lee of Cuttyhawk’ and ‘And They’re Off,’ is outstanding.
The actors in the show are top-notch, though a few are too easily overpowered by musicians to the side of the stage. This is particularly noticeable in the case of Olsen, which is a pity as he has a truly lovely voice, and the amusing Justin Birdsong, who plays Richard, “the nice nurse.” Pace does a remarkable job as Gordon, giving a poignant and amusing performance. He also has a vibrant and powerful voice that can fill the theater when he wants it to.
Production values for the performance are solid, given what was probably a shoe-string budget. Michael P. Kramer’s set is functional and interesting, though the curtains and blinds he uses to define space at times have a mind of their own. Costume designer Jessa-Raye Court does a marvelous job and deserves extra praise for her Mr. Bungee costume (which looks remarkably like a full-sized Froggy the Gremlin, for those people old enough to remember him).
The musicians (Tim Rosser, Allison Seidner, Brandon Travan, Nick McIntyre), under the direction of Jeffrey Campos, who also plays keyboard, are a bright ensemble. Seidner, on cello, is particularly worthy of praise. Since they do at times overpower some of the singers, sitting right next to them is not recommended. It’s also worth noting that one of the musicians has a tendency to silently sing along while not playing. Amusing, but distracting.
One of the most stirring songs in the show is a toe-tapping number called ‘Heart and Music.’ There is no better description of A New Brain; it is a show full of heart and music that will leave you joyful and inspired.
(A New Brain also features Julie Rees, Sevan Green, Yolanda Batts, and Jim Dimarino.)
Copyright 2007 Byrne Harrison
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