Book by William Finn and James Lapine. Music and lyrics by William Finn. Directed by Mike Mackenzie. A Pipedream Theatre Project production. At Performance Works on Wednesday, June 17. Continues until June 21
This production of A New Brain is a veritable bouquet of fresh talent.
The musical itself is extremely quirky and often charming. It’s about Gordon Schwinn, a children’s composer who writes songs for Mr. Bungee, an entertainer dressed as a frog. Gordon falls face first into a plate of pasta while he’s lunching with his agent, Rhoda. It turns out that he has a malformation in his brain, and he must risk dangerous surgery if he hopes to avoid death and regain his faculties.
Much of the musical takes place in Gordon’s head as he hallucinates about his friends and family, as well as about Mr. Bungee and a homeless woman he met on his way to meet Rhoda. Many of the numbers are amusing miniatures. In an exploration of the weirdness of hospitals, for instance, a character named Richard identifies himself as the nice nurse, and sings, “If I can help you / Please let me help you / Because the others won’t help you / Those bitches.” And there’s a good deal of nuanced observation of characters and relationships. In the beautiful “I’d Rather Be Sailing”, Gordon’s partner Roger sings about the joy he gets from boating, an activity Gordon resents.
Weirdly, the musical’s protagonist is extremely passive—Gordon is whiny, and he expects to die—and there’s not a lot of external action.
Still, this production builds on the musical’s strengths and sustains itself remarkably well. Because director Mike Mackenzie has staged this chamber piece in the round in the vast space of Performance Works, the singers’ voices are hard to hear. Still, Mackenzie fills the playing area remarkably well with his blocking, and he gets a beautifully clean and buoyant style from his cast.
Andrew Cohen (Gordon) and Tyson Coady (Roger) create a tender relationship between their characters. Cohen delicately exposes Gordon’s vulnerability, and Coady’s presence is charismatic. Cathy Wilmot rocks out as Lisa, the street person, and Georgia Swinton shines in a number of roles, including an irrepressibly perky waitress. The real achievement, though, is in the ensemble playing. Finn’s score, which resembles extended recitative, is tricky, but I didn’t hear an off note. Keri Minty’s choreography—especially her tango for Gordon and Roger—is surprising and witty.
The musical runs out of gas in its final quarter; passive protagonists make it hard to sculpt a satisfying climax. Still, A New Brain is worth catching. I’ve rarely seen any of these artists before, and I look forward to seeing them all again.