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Seattle by David-Edward Hughes

A New Brain Is Full of Heart and Music at Cornish
STAGEright Theatre


The Cast
Though not in a class with his Falsettos or The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, composer/lyricist William Finn's often felicitous, semi-autobiographical musical A New Brain, with book by Finn and frequent Sondheim collaborator James Lapine, is being splendidly well-served by STAGEright Theatre at the Cornish Playhouse Black Box Theatre. Zandi Carlson makes a bright directorial debut, helming a fresh, fervent and full-voiced cast, and using her choreographic background to instill a constant but never heavyhanded flow of movement (John Huddlestun assisted with the choreography) in a musical which frequently finds its protagonist in a hospital bed or gurney.

Gordon Schwinn (the Finn surrogate) is a talented young songwriter, irritated because he must write a song about Spring for a kiddie show entertainer who plays Mr. Bungee the Frog. During lunch with his agent Rhoda, Gordon clutches his head, passes out, and is taken by ambulance to the hospital. He learns that he has an arteriovenous malformation and requires an urgent operation; not having it means he could die or never regain the use of his faculties. While in the hospital, Gordon contemplates his situation. His greatest fear is dying with his greatest songs still inside of him; and so, from his hospital bed, and while in a coma, and all throughout his ordeal, he begins writing the songs. He also has several hallucinations that involve various people, including his lover, his mother Mimi, hospital staff, and particularly an irascible homeless lady he met on his way to the ill-fated lunch with Rhoda. The results of his surgery and its consequences bring the tale to its upbeat conclusion.

Though aspects of Finn and Lapine's storytelling feel a little too clinical, and perhaps some of the score strains to musicalize a bit too much of the main character's inner thoughts, this production minimizes those textual weaknesses, and gave me a fondness for the show that I had not developed from seeing other stagings of it. Brandon Estrella's whimsical set, loaded with scattershot images of Gordon's world, give the cast a game-board of sorts to play out the tale.

Daniel Stoltenberg's performance as Gordon is a satisfying recipe of sweetness, wry observation, self-pity and fear, and he sings in a sweet, pure (if sometimes too soft) vocal style, personified by leading the catchy "Heart and Music." The yin to Gordon's yang is personified in the relaxed, touching performance of Justin Wright Carrell as Gordon's lover Roger. Carrell offers a silky smooth and enveloping rendition of the score's most enduring song, "I'd Rather Be Sailing", and shares a notable duet, "Really Lousy Day in the Universe," with Shermona Mitchell, who becomes rather than portrays the feisty Homeless Lady. She shows off a potent set of vocal cords every time she sings. As the sometimes prickly Mimi, Susan Connors is a pure force of nature and knows how to put across a prime piece of musical theatre real estate when she is entrusted with it, as in her soaring solo "The Music Still Plays On." Meg McLynn is compassionate and fiery as Rhoda, Matt Giles is amusingly obnoxious and dapper as Mr. Bungee, Andrew Eric Davison is adorable as the "Nice" Nurse" who registers big with "You Boys Are Gonna Get Me in Such Trouble." sprightly Krista Curry does daffy double duty as the Mean Nurse and Waitress, and Stephen Bucheit registers well as the calm and benevolent Minister.

Musical Director Julia Thornton makes sure the vocalists all shine in solos as well as the intricately harmonized group numbers, and confidently leads the trio of two keyboards and percussion that anchor this musical.

STAGEright keeps choosing interesting and not overdone musicals and plays and doing them with gusto and commitment. A New Brain isn't likely to come around again too soon, so Finn fan or not, you should catch this pleasing production.

A New Brain from STAGEright Theatre at Cornish Playhouse Black Box, runs through May 17th, 2014. For more information and tickets, visit seattlestageright.org.



- David Edward Hughes



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