Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
For their first musical theater production of 2003, the University of Cincinnati College - Conservatory of Music (CCM) presents the quirky, yet lovable Off-Broadway musical A New Brain as part of their Studio Series. The show possesses a likable score and an interesting book, and CCM offers a fulfilling production thanks to some wonderful performances and direction.
A New Brain is the semi-autobiographical story of William Finn, the Tony-Award winning composer/lyricist of Falsettos. The premise is that of a frustrated composer who is stricken by a brain disorder. The composer, Gordon Schwinn, faces the possibility of his own mortality with (or despite) the help of his friends, family, and the hospital staff. The show is loosely based on Finn's life, when he was diagnosed with a brain condition in 1992.
Mr. Finn has a rather unique musical style that can be heard in much of his work, and A New Brain is no exception. There is an enjoyable mix of lovely solo ballads, soulful group numbers, and vaudeville type comedy songs. His mostly masterful lyrics also assist in making a very amiable score overall. If the overall score does not match the genius of Finn's masterpiece Falsettos, tunes such as "Sailing," "Heart and Music," "Gordo's Law of Genetics," "Change," and "I Feel So Much Spring" still demonstrate the level of Finn's distinctive talent. The gorgeous vocal arrangements are by Jason Robert Brown, composer of Parade.
The book for the show by Finn and James Lapine is a suitable fit to the material, but has some problems. The main plot is fairly thin; therefore, much of the show consists of backstory, commentary, and concepts presented metaphorically or played out through fantasy numbers reflecting the delusions associated with Schwinn's affliction. The overuse of this device makes the show seem somewhat disjointed and is a drawback to the overall impact of the piece. Still, there is also much to admire. The characters are realistically imperfect yet likable, and most of them have sufficient depth. There is also a good deal of very effective comedy.
As with almost all CCM productions, the student performers enhance this presentation. In the significant leading role of Gordon, Kyle McDaniel skillfully and impressively meets the challenging vocal requirements of the role. He also gives a well-rooted portrayal, and fully captures the vulnerability of this slightly neurotic and insecure character. Geoff Packard provides necessarily warm vocals and fine acting in the somewhat underwritten role of Roger, Gordon's lover. Turning in especially praiseworthy supporting performances with richly detailed portrayals and strong singing are Betsy Wolfe (Homeless Lady), Gina Restani (Mimi Schwinn, Gordon's mother), and Brian Sears (Mr. Bungee). Filling out this talented and energetic cast are Sarah Jane Everman, Seth Rettberg, Jonathan Kay, Ben Magnuson, Lindsey Eure, and Patrick Winkles.
The success of CCM's A New Brain is also aided greatly by superb direction from Richard E. Hess. His staging of the comedic group numbers is hilarious and there is sincere poignancy in many of the more serious scenes. Mr. Hess likewise establishes an appropriate pace and flow for this 90-minute intermission-less piece. Zach Dietz (piano) and Julie Danielson (Bass) provide exemplary accompaniment.
Though some might find the story of A New Brain odd, CCM's rendering is satisfactorily entertaining thanks to a strong score, excellent performances, and marvelous direction. A New Brain was presented from February 6 - 8, 2003.