Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
In 1992, shortly after William Finn received two Tony Awards for Falsettos (for Best Score and, with James Lapine, for Best Book a Musical), he had a stroke-like episode and was diagnosed with arteriovenous malformation, or AVM, in his brain stem. Brain surgery followed, a near-death experience that left Finn in a coma with his survival in doubt. Fortunately, survive he did. He spent a year going through rehabilitation and reevaluating his life, prompting him to write songs that were the genesis of A New Brain. Recruiting Lapine to collaborate on the book, the musical went through several workshops before officially premiering in an Off-Broadway production at Lincoln Center in May 1998.
The show was not a commercial success. Perhaps the public was not ready for a musical about brain surgery, but I tell you, A New Brain is about far more than the incident that led Finn to create it. In his album notes for the original cast CD, Andre Bishop, who was then artistic director of Lincoln Center Theater, wrote "A New Brain is [Finn's] response: not to the threat of death but to the joy of living." This is a wildly affirmative show. I defy anyone to sit through it without feeling grateful for the gift of life.
Finn invented a songwriter named Gordon Schwinn to serve as his alter ego. Gordon writes simple songs for a children's TV show hosted by Mr. Bungee, a man dressed as a frog for his pre-school audience and a terror to work for. Gordon's struggles between his desire to write high quality songs and eventually to compose the entire score for a Broadway show, and the insipid material that provides his paycheck. His greatest fear in facing the prospect of his own death is to have failed to unleash all the creative work locked up within himself.
Gordon also has a devoted boyfriend, Roger, and a deeply loving but overbearing mother, Mimi. A New Brain covers the unshakable love between a mother and her child, and the ability of a romantic relationship to endure the strain of an existential crisis. Gordon's best friend, the pragmatic Rhoda, is also on hand, along with a couple of nurses (Richard, the "nice nurse" and Nancy, the "thin nurse"), a doctor, a minister, and a homeless woman named Lisa, whose efforts to merely survive don't preclude her from extending kindness to a strangerand provide Gordon with a vivid lesson about what really matters in his life.
That is the entire show, and though it is more than enough, it is a fairly intimate work, one that might have become lost on the Schneider's ample stage. Director McGovern stages the musical in a manner that draws the outer edges of the stage toward the center with emotional centrifugal force, with Gordon as its center of gravity, even when other characters are given the limelight. Each scene glides easily into the next, with no gaps in the story's command, for an hour and forty-minutes without intermission.
Gordon is infused with life, precarious as it is, by Riley McNutt, who, always good, has never given a better performance that I've seen. We feel Gordon's fears, frustrations and hopes as the terror of life's final scene push him away from those who want more than anything to hold him till the end. McNutt has a beautiful voice that reveals both the gorgeous melody and authentic lyrics in Finn's compositions. He gives stirring voice to "I Have So Many Songs," and "Time and Music," an account of what he most desires from life. The heartache with which he presents his family history ("And They're Off"), and the pure joy in his moment of epiphany ("I Feel So Much Spring") are treasures.
Gordon's mother Mimi is played with grit and love in equal measure in a great performance by Jen Burleigh-Bentz. Her refusal to be tearful over Gordon's prospects of recovery is fierce, channeled via her smoky voice into faux sunniness and furiously cleaning his apartment ("Mother's Gonna Make Things Fine," "In the Middle of the Room," "Throw It Out,"), until she caves in with a poignant appraisal of how she will endure the loss in "The Music Still Goes On," a showstopper. C. Ryan Shipley plays Roger, somewhat underwritten but convincingly faithful to Gordon ("An Invitation to Sleep in My Arms"), even if his first love is "Sailing" (a gorgeous ode to the pursuit of bliss). Shipley poignantly conveys the sadness of seeing love slipping away in his account of "A Really Lousy Day in the Universe."
The character who seems to come from out of the blue is Lisa, the homeless woman, played with panache by Mary Palazzolo. Everyone else is either family, friend, employer, or caregiver to Gordon. Lisa exists independent of Gordon, providing evidence that life exists beyond his own rendition of it, and that the only thing dependable within our own lives is "Change"which Palazzolo knocks out of the park with her heartfelt, belting voice. After this and her previous powerful turns at Artistry in Legally Blonde and Footloose, Palazzolo has earned a place as a performer to watch for.
Bradley Greenwald is known for his gorgeous baritone, but here plays to his considerable strength in comedy as Mr. Bungee, proving that even one's nemesis can bring forth light ("Don't Give In"). As the good nurse Richard, Tyler Wilson is a tad overly mincing, but brings show-biz chops to his complaint of being "Poor, Unsuccessful and Fat" and his voyeuristic delight in "You Boys Are Gonna Get Me in Such Trouble," with McNutt and Shipley delightfully abetting him. Caitlin Burns plays life-long friend Rhoda with conviction, and Sarah DeYong (nurse Nancy D and a waitress), Reese Britts (the minister), and Rodolfo Nieto (the doctor) are all fine, though Nieto's powerful, operatic voice, such an asset in shows like Man of la Mancha, seems hard to confine to so small a role.
All of the actors work equally hard and well as the backing ensemble, with stunning choral arrangements in genres ranging from doo-wop ("Gordo's Law of Genetics") to odes of joy ("I Feel So Much Spring"), bringing out the genius of Jason Robert Brown's orchestrations. Heidi Spesard-Noble's choreography, emphasizing arm and hand movements, and tight circles with Gordon usually at the center, adds spunk and lightness to allay the risk of the show sliding toward the maudlin.
Rick Polenek designed a spare set with sliding illuminated panels that serve very well, especially in tandem with Karin Olson's lighting, to transform from chic lunch spot to emergency room, to hospital room, to the recess of Gordon's mind, and, most inventively, the chamber of an MRI machine. Ed Gleeman's has costumed the characters appropriately, with a delightful costume for Mr. Bungee that really could work well on children's television.
I am grateful to Finn and Lapine for creating this gorgeous and heartfelt work, to Artistry for the opportunity to see A New Brain, and to Ben McGovern for handling it with such tender loving care. I would love to say it is for anyone, but perhaps that is too broad a stroke. As musicals go, it is quirky, it does not have an expansive chorus or dance line, or lavish sets and costumes. Some folks are squeamish about things like brain surgery and may have trouble finding the humor in Gordon's situation. I don't know any of those people, but I expect they are out there.
For the rest of you, this is a lovely show with gorgeous music that deserves to be heard, and a production that is unlikely to be bettered. I sure wouldn't miss it.
A New Brain runs through November 9, 2019, in the Schneider Theater at Artistry, Bloomington Center for the Arts, 1800 West Old Shakopee Road, Bloomington MN. Tickets: $43.00 -$46.00; Seniors (Age 62 and up): $38.00 - $41.00; Next Generation (age 30 and under): $17.00. For tickets and information, call 952-563-8375 or visit artistrymn.org.
Book: James Lapine and William Finn; Music and Lyrics: William Finn; Musical Arrangements: Jason Robert Brown; Director: Benjamin McGovern; Choreographer: Heidi Spesard-Noble Music Director and Conductor: Anita Ruth; Scenic Design: Rick Polenek; Costume Design: Ed Gleeman; Lighting Design: Karin Olson; Sound Design: Matt Bombich; Properties Design: Katie Phillips; Stage Manager: Lee Johnson; Assistant Stage Manager: Rebekah Meyer.
Cast: Reese Britts (The Minister), Jen Burleigh-Bentz (Mimi Schwinn), Caitlin Burns (Rhoda), Sarah DeYong (Waitress/Nancy, the thin nurse), Bradley Greenwald (Mr. Bungee), Riley McNutt (Gordon Schwinn), Rodolfo Nieto (Doctor); Mary Palazzolo (Lisa, a homeless lady), C. Ryan Shipley (Roger), Evan Tyler Wilson (Richard, the nice nurse).