Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Connecticut and the Berkshires

A New Brain
Barrington Stage Company
Review by Fred Sokol

Darrell Purcell, Jr., Adam Chanler-Berat, Mary Testa,
and Dorcas Leung

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Barrington Stage Company's A New Brain is an exhilarating swirl of a production, mixing real and surreal goings on. William Finn wrote the music and lyrics for the show, which first appeared in New York City in 1998, and he co-wrote the book with James Lapine. Jason Robert Brown provides vocal arrangements and Michael Starobin orchestrations. Vadim Feichtner is musical director and Chloe O. Davis the choreographer. Director Joe Calarco brings together this nonstop 100 minute or so theatre gift. It's keenly moving, occasionally laugh-out-loud funny, and always engaging to the extent that one might have the impulse to jump on stage and partake. The Pittsfield, Massachusetts, theatre company continues its superb season as this show runs through September 10.

Finn suffered a stroke during the early 1990s and the experience evidently fueled him as he composed A New Brain, which is the story of a writer named Gordon Schwinn (Adam Chanler-Berat) who, with a threatening physical situation, is desperate to establish his identity, find himself if you will, and survive. He struggles to create a song for a frog on a TV program and is chastised, sort of, by Mr. Bungee (Andy Grotelueschen), the television host and frog character as well. Gordon's brain might be his undoing, his relationship with his boyfriend Roger (Darrell Purcell, Jr.) is questionable, and he's about to deal with a physician (Tally Sessions) who is, to be kind, eclectic.

Nancy D. (Justine Horihata Rappaport) could be a slightly less snide nurse, but Richard (Eliseo Román) is a much kinder, self-deprecating one. Demond Green plays the Minister at the hospital, Salome B. Smith shines as the Homeless Woman who appears every so often, and Dorcas Leung plays Gordon's good friend Rhoda. Gordon's overbearing Mother Mary Testa) arrives on the scene filled with sarcastic advisories and a micro-management technique distinctly her own. Testa snags the spotlight several times and is at her best with "Mother's Gonna Make Things Fine," a number she shares with Chanler-Berat and the company. Testa was the homeless lady in the late 1990s Lincoln Center rendering and she is terrific, utilizing vibrato, as the Mother this time around.

Suffice to say that the 33 songs in the show are impressively affecting. Roger and Gordon combine beautifully on "I'd Rather Be Sailing," and tone shifts a while later with the humorous company rendition of "Gordo's Law of Genetics." Darrell Purcell, Jr.'s voice is pure as his is pitch with "Anytime." Chanler-Berat and Purcell Jr. sing together a few times and their harmonies are sweet. Chanler-Berat (who has notable Broadway credits) adeptly modifies to perfectly suit his character. Tempo and tone vary according to wide-ranging mood swings throughout this presentation. Finn's compositions are original and always telling, whether they be emotive or comical.

Chloe O. Davis's choreography is positively pivotal, since A New Brain is continuous. Scenes swiftly evolve and actors need to seamlessly accommodate what comes next. Director Joe Calarco has helmed musicals such as Ragtime, Into the Woods, and Kiss Me, Kate for Barrington Stage. Now his vision and touch enable the current production to flow fluently from start to finish. It is about the mutability of life, what is unknown, what might or might not be ahead. Gordon is eccentric and neurotic but also smart. He's engulfed as he explores his and the human existence through his anxiety.

William Finn has given us Falsettos, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, and much more. Alan Paul, in his first year as Barrington Stage Artistic Director, reached out to Finn, already an associate artist with the company, for one of his works and Finn supplied the answer. This one must be headed for New York and, preferably, with the current cast. It should not be a matter of if but when it arrives.

BSC brings New England this remarkable performance in association with Williamstown Theatre Festival, north of Barrington Stage and typically a locale for wondrous summer theater, who was not able to mount its usual season this summer. The partnership on this show is a plus for all: theatre companies and theatregoers.

A New Brain runs through September 10, 2023, at Barrington Stage Company, 30 Union St., Pittsfield MA. For information and tickets, please call 413-236-8888 or visit