Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.
The Studio Theatre's production of A New Brain, William Finn's semi-autobiographical musical about a man examining his life (both outlook and choices) in the face of and after surviving a potentially fatal brain condition, is thoughtful and witty and ultimately a celebration of life. Mr. Finn has written a very appealing and beautiful score for this show, and the cast assembled for the production does justice to Mr. Finn's score, resulting in a well-performed and well-sung production.
Gordon Schwinn, played by Tony Award winner Michael Rupert, is a frustrated songwriter whose current job, writing for a children's show that stars the life-size singing frog Mr. Bungee, has "killed" his talent. Gordon collapses one day, and his life is suddenly and irrevocably changed - he is diagnosed with a potentially fatal brain condition. The remainder of the show, a mixture of reality, flashbacks, and hallucinations, revolves around how Gordon and his family deal with this situation.
As Gordon, Mr. Rupert gives an honest performance, conveying the anger at finding himself in this situation and the regret over not having accomplished more in his life, without becoming overwrought or overemotional. Mr. Rupert is an expressive singer, moving easily from sarcastic quips to mask Gordon's fear to deeper emotions such as Gordon's almost desperate need to write something memorable on the eve of his surgery and the quiet joy Gordon feels at having a second chance at life when his surgery is successful.
The relationship between Gordon and his lover Roger, played by Will Gartshore, is a solid one with Roger providing comfort, understanding, and love to Gordon. The lyrical "I'd Rather Be Sailing," sung by Roger (with Gordon joining him toward the end of the song) provides Mr. Gartshore with the opportunity to showcase his beautiful tenor. Gordon's relationship with his mother, portrayed by Judy Simmons, is a little more complicated, as demonstrated by her almost manic need to convince Gordon (and herself) that everything is going to be fine by acting as if his condition does not worry her in "Mother's Gonna Make Things Fine."
Buzz Mauro plays Mr. Bungee, the singing frog, who plays a prominent role in Gordon's hallucinations, giving voice to Gordon's fears, forcing Gordon to face those fears, and ultimately pushing him to fight for his life and wake up from his coma. Mr. Mauro portrays the obtrusive frog with the perfect amount of obnoxiousness, giving his appearances in Gordon's dreams an insistent quality that is intended to get under Gordon's skin. Andrea Frierson-Toney displays great comic timing and stage presence as the homeless woman and possesses an amazing voice, which she uses to great effect in the song "Change."
The ensemble numbers also provide wonderful moments. The song "Heart and Music" and the subsequent version "Time and Music" are charming, memorable songs. After the surgery Gordon undergoes to resolve his brain condition leaves him temporarily in a coma, a very clever musical number, which includes a tango to the song "Brain Dead," ensues. The uplifting final song, "I Feel So Much Spring," conveys with a simple eloquence that life is a wonderful gift and that there is so much in life to appreciate and celebrate if one's eyes and heart are open to it.
A New Brain. Music and Lyrics by William Finn. Book by James Lapine and William Finn. Starring Michael Rupert. With Andrea Frierson-Toney, Scott Leonard Fortune, Will Gartshore, Kristy Glass, Duncan Hood, Eric Lee Johnson, Mary Jayne Raleigh, Buzz Mauro, Judy Simmons. Directed by Serge Seiden. Musical Direction by Jay Crowder. Choreography by Michael J. Bobbitt. Setting by Daniel Conway. Lighting by Michael Giannitti. Costumes by Devon Painter. Properties by Michelle Elwyn. Sound by Maureen M. Tobin. Vocal Arrangements by Jason Robert Brown.
The show has been extended through December 30 at The Studio Theatre