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A CurtainUp Review
A New Brain
By Elyse Sommer
A musical about brain surgery? Hospital beds, MRI machines and walkers as props?
Since A New Brain is autobiographical and its author-composer, William Finn, lived to translate his 1992 life and death struggle into this just opened show at Lincoln Center's Mitzi Newhouse Theater, it doesn't take a seer to predict a happy ending. Still, while audiences were sufficiently enchanted by Cherry Jones' portrayal of a woman who for much of Pride's Crossing hobbled across this same stage with a walker, a remarkable number of those same people I spoke to when it began previewing were put off by the idea of Finn's musicalized retelling of his harrowing ordeal. I hope they change their mind and see this sweet (yes, really!) and enjoyable musical gem. It is a paean not only to hope, supportive love and medical technology but the power of theatrical collaboration.
Finn's long-time colleague James Lapine has kept the story of Gordon Michael Schwinn (Malcolm Gets), Finn's name-rhyming and career paralleling alter-ego from turning into General Hospital: The Musical. Instead of emphasizing the more morbid aspects of brain malfunction, Lapine has helped Finn shift the focus to Gordon's pre-catastrophe struggle with his muse.
Thus in our first glimpse of Gordon he is trying to write a Spring song for a TV children's entertainer (Chip Zien) who calls himself Mr. Bungee and outfits himself like a frog. And it is that ego-crushing assignment that becomes the endearingly self-absorbed Gordon's post-trauma epiphany song, "I Feel So Much Spring." Survival thus becomes the triumph of the creative spirit as well as the body.
Director/choreographer Graciela Daniele has used the medical docudrama elements to create enough spectacularly inventive production numbers to keep the narrative bouncing along for the full intermissionless hour and a half that covers Gordon's collapse over lunch with his friend and agent Rhoda (Liz Larsen); the ministrations of his doctor (John Jellison), a thin nurse (Kristin Chenoweth), a not so thin one (Michael Mandell) and a real minister (Keith Byron Kirk) who doesn't care that he's Jewish. Also figuring importantly in the proceedings are Gordon's determinedly upbeat mother (Penny Fuller), lover (Christopher Innvar) and an enigmatic bag lady (Mary Testa).
Typifying Ms. Daniele's integration of the medical-biographical details with song and dance sequences is one scene triggered by a remark made by Gordon's mother about the horse race loving Schwinn Senior who gambled away the family fortune. Instead of the single walker moved inch-by-painful inch by Mabel Bigelow, a.k.a. Cherry Jones, we now have a whole row of walkers conjured up as the starting gate and the ensemble re-imagined as race horses. Another ingenious transformation of scary into fun musical number is the metamorphosis of a giant MRI machine into a sailboat and the attendants into a chorus of sailors. These and other numbers have the same sort of idiosyncratic lyrics that earned Finn two Tonys for his earlier musical Falsettos. Unlike Finn and Schwinn's names they don't always rhyme and the mostly sung-through music isn't tied down to a single style. Instead it behaves like Stephen Sondheim crossed with Michael John LaChiusa, seasoned with big dollops of do-wop and pop.
The show has numerous noteworthy solos. To mention a few, there's Gordon's "I'd Rather Be Sailing" (sailing being one of the show's metaphors for change and hope) and, on the heels of a terrific tango ensemble routine, Penny Fuller's torchy rendition of her own story. Her "Mother's Gonna Make Things Fine" also tugs mightily at the emotions and her literary allusions as she tosses out Gordon's books during a nervous cleaning spree of his apartment are delightful. While Malcolm Gets has us rooting for his recovery as well as applauding his musical gifts, the shows very finest musical moments come from the ensemble songs like "The Law of Genetics." Happily, most members of this terrific cast also get star turns.
Two of the secondary characters, Mr. Bungee and Lisa, the Homeless Lady are thematic mirrors of each other. Mr. Bungee's insistent "Where's My Song" seems to demand ordinariness, though there's nothing ordinary about Chip Zien's energetic portrayal of the at once delightful and obnoxiousness of a bullfrog. The real plea underlying Lisa's (Mary Testa) repeated requests for change assume their full significance when she emerges from street beggar to street entrepreneur (thanks those books tossed out by Gordon's mother!). Ms. Testa who was one of the bright lights in a recent Playwrights Horizon production (From Above, linked below) once again demonstrates her acute comic sensibility as well as a fine singing voice. Her "Life Is a Rotten Occasion" is especially memorable.
The production team contributes mightily to the show's strength. As you take your seat, David Gallo's set looks very bare bones -- a grey tiled floor empty except for a black upright player piano on wheels and a cut out wall panel at the rear of the stage. It quickly turns into a moveable feast of roll on-and-off set pieces (Mr. Bungee's bike would be a sell-out in Toys-R-Us!) with many shifts in that rear panel. Peggy Eisenhauer adds her usual magical lighting touch and Toni-Leslie James' adeptly runs the costume gamut from Mr. Bungee's wacky frogman outfit to Peggy Fuller's stunning black velvet gown.
In the Lincoln Center Theater Review composer/librettist Finn is quoted as follows: " I think good musicals, successful musicals rarely depend on the music; they're more often about the story. Great musicals, however, are always about both." While A New Brain is indeed about music and story I hesitate to label it "great. " For one thing it at times leapfrogs like Mr. Bungee, to the brink of sappiness and the lyrics when they do rhyme occasionally descend to the level of doggerel (i.e.""yes indeedie/`here's your ziti") which doesn't quite go with the sung-through operatic approach. However, as the team effort of the medical profession gave Finn "a new brain"" so the Finn-Lapine-Daniele collaboration proves that even an unpromising concept can be made into a show that's charming, great fun and has a big-enough-to-burst heart.
Links to Shows Mentioned: