For the first of two shows in their season entitled “Real People, Real Stories”, Front Porch presents an autobiographical musical. Composer William Finn began work on A New Brain after recovering from some trouble in his brain. Finn enlisted his Falsettos collaborator James Lapine to create the book for the show and focus his songs. It turns out that brain damage can be excellent fodder for musical theatre!
Don’t believe me? Add the musical episodes of Grey’s Anatomy and Scrubs to the queue of your favorite streaming service.
Both of the special installments from those long-running medical dramedies feature patients diagnosed with life-threatening brain injuries. For our entertainment, the main side effect of those injuries is vivid hallucinations of the characters singing and dancing down the halls of their hospitals. Naturally, Grey’s and Scrubs executed this concept very differently (i.e., a harrowing cover of Snow Patrol’s “Chasing Cars” and a tuneful ditty called “Everything Comes Down to Poo”, respectively), but both stand out as landmark episodes.
If like me you’ve rewatched those episodes hundreds of times, you can get your fix of head trauma-induced musical theatre magic at the New Hazlett Theater where Front Porch Theatrical’s production of A New Brain opened recently. It’s a piece that boasts both the tear-inducing pathos of Grey’s and the side-splitting laughs of Scrubs. In this positively pristine production, those elements are balanced masterfully by thoughtful design, lucid direction, and a mind-blowingly talented ensemble.
From its Off-Broadway premiere in 1998, A New Brain has gone on to become something of a cult favorite for musical fans. Both the original production and the 2015 New York City Center Encores! revival were preserved on cast albums featuring the talents of Kristin Chenoweth and Jonathan Groff. I think when it comes to the group of singers/actors assembled here, it’s time for a third cast recording.
It takes a lot of focus from the audience and the performers to follow all the trippy twists and turns of this story. Occasionally, some lyrics in the nearly sung-through score are lost due to the overamplification of Music Director Deana Muro’s rich orchestra, but the dramatic moments and intentions always come through loud and clear.
Composer Finn’s surrogate, Gordon Michael Schwinn (John Wascavage), intends to write a song about spring for the children’s show he works for. While at lunch with his best friend Rhoda (Meredith Kate Doyle), a particularly dramatic moment puts both his life and career in jeopardy. After falling face first into his meal, Gordon is rushed to the hospital and eventually diagnosed with an arteriovenous malformation in his brain. In the face of potential death, he must fight for the will to live long enough to write all the songs in his heart.
Mimi (Becki Toth), Gordon’s mother, breezes in to “make things fine” for her son in his hour of need, but ultimately breaks down a little herself. Roger, Gordon’s boyfriend (marvelously sung by Jeremy Spoljarick), sweetly offers his lover intimacy as solace for his present predicament, only to be turned away by Gordon repeatedly. A trio of hospital staffers (Lauren Maria Medina, Pierre Mballa, and the especially hilarious Brady D. Patsy), a minister (David Ieong), Gordon’s antagonistic boss/frog puppeteer Mr. Bungee (Matthew J. Rush), his assistant (Mei Lu Barnum), and an enterprising homeless woman round out the cast of Gordon’s various medical procedures and visions.
As Gordon, Mr. Wascavage’s is immensely charming from his initial creative and sexual frustration through his emotional and neurological depression. His Gordon is a compelling protagonist in the truest sense, one that you genuinely hope the best for when the curtain falls. Ms. Toth’s shrewd comic timing brings a refreshing nuance to Mimi, the overbearing mother stereotype. Late in the show, she delivers a spellbinding rendition of “The Music Still Plays On.” Drew Leigh. Williams as the homeless woman nearly blows the roof off the theater when she implores the audience for literal and metaphorical “Change.” It’s impossible to take your ears off of her whenever she’s on stage.
In addition to assembling an all-star ensemble, Director Connor McCanlus has created a colorful, multi-dimensional world where Andrew David Ostrowski’s kaleidoscopic lighting design and Frank Blackmore surrealist scenic design are naturally occurring elements. The show is constantly pivoting between moments of levity like the pseudo-lament “Gordon’s Law of Genetics” to moments of honesty like the actual lament “And They’re Off.” The shifts are rarely ever dizzying because of Mr. McCanlus’s surgeon-like precision at the helm.
Front Porch’s A New Brain is a triumph over the show’s challenging material, its relative obscurity, and the sad realization that it can no longer be taken for granted that a theatre company in this city allows queer characters to get fair and realistic representation on stage.
If this production doesn’t cure what ails you, you should probably see a doctor.
Front Porch Theatrical’s A New Brain runs at the New Hazlett Theater through May 27th. For tickets and more information, click here.
Photos by Martha Smith
Categories: Archived Reviews