A New Brain
William Finn and James Lapine’s quirky musical, A New Brain, seems an unusual choice for one of Reprise’s one-night-only concert staged readings. Inspired by Finn’s own experiences after being diagnosed with a brain tumor, the musical is alternately frightening, touching, surreal, comic and gloriously life affirming. But what it is not is a musical comprised of killer solo numbers, songs which individual cast members can practice in their own living rooms, before a brief rehearsal period in which they bring their performances together in some semblance of a coherent whole. A New Brain’s best musical numbers are its ensemble pieces. And its story sings not because of vocal pyrotechnics, but because of character interaction.
A New Brain’s opening number features its protagonist, Gordon, at a piano, attempting to compose a children’s song. For the concert staged reading, Malcolm Gets, recreating the role he originated Off-Broadway, walked in front of the standard row of stools and music stands to a piano, and began to play. The effect was one of announcement: on only two days of rehearsal, this company wasn’t just going to stand there and sing, they were going to perform this show.
And perform it, they did. While, for the most part, the actors remained behind their music stands and only interacted physically in the most rudimentary of ways, this company of ten created characters and invested them with lives, spirits, and histories. The result was an almost impossibly joyous production, sprinkled with the occasional moment of mesmerizing singing.
From Gets’ initial moment at the piano, he set the tone for the production. His singing voice wasn’t always up to the task of Finn’s score - some of Gordon’s higher notes seemed a bit outside his comfort zone - but when you’re looking for someone to inhabit a cynical, smart, neurotic, Jewish smart-ass who barely shields his internal pain, Gets is your go-to guy. He made Gordon absolutely transparent to the audience, making all of Gordon’s choices understandable, because we saw what made Gordon tick.
Kevin Earley played Gordon’s boyfriend, Roger, who was initially not reachable when Gordon was first rushed to the hospital. When Roger finally entered the action, Earley played him as the perfect boyfriend for Gordon - a polished, handsome, confident man, who was easily supportive and giving, naturally knowing what Gordon needed from him at any given moment. It almost seemed like Earley was playing an idealized version of Roger, as though we were seeing Roger through Gordon’s needy, loving eyes. Earley also scored vocally, with a lovely “I’d Rather Be Sailing,” that he sang with a lighter, more lyrical voice than some of the more powerful work he’s done with Reprise in the past.
The rest of the company also succeeded in characterization, even more than in selling the musical numbers. Robert Picardo was splendidly annoying as Mr. Bungee, Gordon’s boss, a smug little snot who incongruously hosts a children’s show. Karen Morrow was notable as Gordon’s mother, a woman who raises denial to an art form. Harrison White was charming as the good-natured “nice nurse,” the counterpart to Beth Malone’s all-business “thin nurse.” And Nita Whitaker had some warm moments as a homeless woman dispensing street wisdom.
Although the company was solid musically, few solo numbers stood out. (Whitaker’s “Change,” was rewarded with a huge audience reaction, but it seemed overplayed to my tastes.) Where the company really hit musically was the ensemble numbers. On more than one occasion, seven or more performers pulled their voices together to create an unmitigated celebration of music and life. These songs carried Finn’s message, and, in this production, their beautiful rendition and emotional truth was the real highlight.
Reprise! Broadway’s Best -- Marcia Seligson, Producing Artistic Director; Jim Gardia, Managing Director -- presents A New Brain. Book by James Lapine and William Finn. Music and Lyrics by William Finn. Lighting Design John E.D. Bass; Sound Design Philip G. Allen; Casting Director Bruce H. Newberg, C.S.A.; Stage Manager Ando Iovino; Company Manager Danny Feldman; General Manager Kelly Estrella. Produced by Marcia Seligson; Music Direction by Ed Martel; Directed by David Lee.
A New Brain was performed on January 31, 2005.