Regional Reviews: Phoenix
A New Brain tells the story of a talented young theatre composer named Gordon who wastes his abilities writing songs for a ridiculous children's TV show. After he is diagnosed with a brain tumor, he waits in the hospital to undergo surgery and, positive he is dying, fears his greatest songs are still unwritten.
Finn and bookwriter James Lapine crafted an intimate and emotionally rich story filled with three-dimensional characters and light-hearted moments amongst the serious and moving message of how a near death experience can make one realize that they should learn to appreciate the people and happier moments in their lives. Finn's challenging, sung-through score has distinctive and unconventional lyrics and a driving, manic pace, but it's also chock full of soaring ballads, charming comical numbers, and several moving ensemble pieces. The musical is very quirky, offbeat and somewhat challenging, for both the actors and the audience, with fragmented, slightly disjointed sequences that aren't always additive to the show's central themes.
Director and choreographer Robert Kolby Harper ensures his cast deliver rich, refined and genuine portrayals of these lovable characters. His staging is crisp and swift, moving the 95-minute one-act show along at a brisk pace but also allowing for the more serious moments to shine and resonate. His choreography features plenty of fun touches, including using walkers to signify race horses for one song. Music director Danielle Hutchison gets some beautiful harmonies from the talented cast and the small but stellar band.
As Gordon, Drake Sherman delivers a good balance between sarcasm and sweetness as this endearing man who suffers a major life-threatening event. Sherman's voice achieves some rich and pure sounds and his portrayal is filled with both charisma and credibility. Austin Delp is very good as Gordon's aloof but sweet, sincere and loving boyfriend Roger, and Nellie Shuford is equally as good as Gordon's caring, forceful and upbeat though clearly worried and slightly unstable mother. All three evoke realistic and meaningful connections with each other.
In the supporting cast, Vaughn Sherman is funny as the unsympathetic doctor, Julian Mendoza is full of charm and a huge strong voice as the compassionate "nice" nurse Richard, and Alyssa Lucero's rich, bright voice delivers some beautiful solos and lush harmonies as a mysterious homeless woman named Lisa who factors into the story in a very amusing way. As Rhoda, Gordon's best friend, Anissa Griego is freshly unconventional and warm. David Hopkins is full of charisma as Mr. Bungee, the host of the kiddie show Gordon is writing for. Tim Powers is funny as the unorthodox hospital minister and Brielle Amrein is appropriately short as Nancy, the sadistic nurse.
Alfredo Escarcega's scenic design is slight and simple, with the use of just a few small set pieces, including a rolling hospital bed, a few screens and a bench, to quickly establish the locations in the show. Mario Mendoza's media design provides large, effective video projections behind the actors, while Jeff Rollins' lighting design adds some nice and appropriate touches. From Roger's preppy attire to Lisa's tattered, worn clothes, the costumes from Maci Hosler clearly and quickly define each character.
Finn and Lapine took a real-life experience to create a musical that tugs at the emotions while making you laugh with its sarcastic wit. It is an ironic musical that portrays the wakeup call that happens when someone is faced with mortality and realizes their shortcomings, yet also a show with a cathartic emotional message that life is worth living. Though it isn't a perfect musical, with a talented cast and excellent direction that deliver the show's central themes beautifully, ASU's A New Brain proves to be a worthy production with a big heart.
A New Brain at Arizona State University / Lyric Opera Theatre runs through November 19th, 2017, at the Evelyn Smith Music Theatre in the ASU School of Music, 50 E. Gammage Pkwy in Tempe AZ. Tickets can be purchased and information on upcoming productions can be found at http://music.asu.edu/events/lot.
Music and lyrics by William Finn