Life and death are wittily examined in SU Drama’s cerebral musical A New Brain
Any pain can be endured, wrote Isak Dinesen, if it can be put into a story. Composer William Finn does that one better. Not just pain but a life-threatening catastrophe can be endured when it is put into a musical comedy: A New Brain, the season finale from the Syracuse University Drama Department.
Finn was having lunch with a girl pal one afternoon when he keeled over face-first into the baked ziti. We learn during A New Brain that the real-life attack was an arteriovenous malformation (ugh!), which could kill you. The occasion calls for a song-and-dance number, testimonies to the healing power of art. Make that Art.
This is a long way from boy-meets-girl or even boys-meets-boy. Finn’s best-known works for the stage, Falsettos (1992) and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (2005), might qualify as unconventional, but not like this. Ditto for Finn’s collaborator James Lapine, who also worked with Stephen Sondheim on Sunday in the Park with George (1984), a musical about pointillism. Precedent for making music from such unpromising—not to say dreaded—material comes not from the stage but rather the movies. Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz (1979) treats the great choreographer’s coronary and brush with mortality with often heavily ironic mordancy. A New Brain, in contrast, can be laugh-out-loud funny, such as when mocking the absurdity of the MRI scan even at the threat of death might be the composer’s ultimate writer’s block.
Finn and Fosse both draw on that ultimate surreal autobiographical fantasia, movie director Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2 (1963). As with the Italian master, Finn and Lapine’s characters may speak in their own voices, a representation, perhaps, of what they said in life. But they can also break into dance numbers, paired off incongruously, like the insinuating bag lady (Lily Ann Carlson) from the street with the ineffectual Minister (Brian Michael Hart) from the hospital.
The action begins when the Finn character, Gordon Schwinn (Marcelo Pereira), a talented but sarcastic composer, is facing the usual kind of writer’s block. He’s stuck meeting a deadline writing what he feels is inferior material for a tyrannical, exasperating children’s entertainer, Mr. Bungee (Elliott O’Rourke Peterson), who dresses as a frog. Taking a break, Schwinn goes to lunch with his agent and friend Rhoda (Marie Eife), who is incidentally (because Schwinn is gay) a gorgeous redhead. Two numbers arise at the restaurant, “Specials” before the attack, and “911 Emergency” after. In both of them the somewhat overbearing Waitress (Dawn Rother) commands attention and offers much promise. In the original production the role of the Waitress was taken by Kristen Chenoweth, who doubles as the thin, mean nurse, yet to be seen. Here the attractive Rother blends into the ensemble.
Once Schwinn begins to get medical attention, Finn and Lapine’s book sets up a series of contrasts. A New Brain’s overriding theme may be gratitude and jubilation, but not every figure is saintly or heroic. The principal medico, Dr. Jafar Berensteiner (Ross Baum), is a self-regarding, indifferent healer, improving the patient almost despite himself. Of the nurses, the book favors the male Richard (Sammy Lopez), who’s identified as “nice” in the program, over tall, leggy Nancy D. (Mary Claire King), described as “thin,” which might mean heartless. Musically this allows Finn to take contrasting directions, with Nancy’s cool “MRI Day” and Richard’s emotive “You Boys are Gonna Get Me in So Much Trouble.” With the bravura passages Lopez is called in to deliver, it sounds as though the role of Richard was written for a black performer.
Finn and Lapine essay a comparable contrast between the two comforters, the lover and the mother. Roger Delli-Bovi (Matthew Hazen), lovable and supportive, is given less to do musically, often in duets with Gordon, like the affecting “Sailing” and “Just Go” along with “Time” toward the end. Gordon’s mother Mimi (Alliy Drago), who flirts with some Sophie Portnoy edginess, demands her own voice. That abrupt shift of tone allows her solos to stand out: “Throw It Out,” where she disposes of Gordon’s library, and even more, “Music Still Plays On,” where she appears in black and sees Gordon’s catastrophe as an episode in her story.
No summary of characterization or action, however, can get at how A New Brain feels different from most shows you’ve ever seen, why it is revived so infrequently and perhaps why it retains high esteem among musical theater aficionados. It’s beyond the irony favored by post-modernism all the way to paradox. Characters so often express something quite different from what we expect from them. Take the foul-tempered Mr. Bungee, beautifully outfitted as a frog by costume designer
Devon Ritchie, and supposed to look ridiculous and repellent. He’s no Kermit. Wonderfully played by Elliott O’Rourke Peterson, he keeps showing up in successive numbers telling Gordon he should embrace his childlike wonder, which harkens back to the frustration the composer felt in the opening scene. Only Gordon does accept this advice, making the composer a bit like everyone he meets.
Even though SU Drama is well-staffed with directing talent that has wowed us in the past, someone saw fit to import Wendy Knox to helm A New Brain. An experienced professional, Knox runs the Frank Theatre in Minneapolis, nationally known for breaking away from the conventional, like a musical extravaganza on the Finnish national epic, The Kalevala. A New Brain, a show with 35 musical numbers, is so mercurial and risky, the text constantly veers toward the bathetic or the incomprehensible. But we rub our eyes and see that she has charmed us instead.
Massively assisting Knox’s efforts is a choreographer from the drama department, Andrea Leigh-Smith. We have never seen dance so smoothly integrated into dramatic action, setups that vanish and immediately return us to dialogue.
The heavy lifting, of course, must be delivered by Marcelo Pereira as Gordon, who’s in more than two-thirds of the numbers. He brings the flexibility and range for a long emotional journey but might be a smidge more agreeable than the character as written or what Finn was in life.
Key to the success of this show are Devon Ritchie’s witty costumes, not just for Mr. Bungee, as well as Brian Cimmet’s confident musical navigation of Finn’s tricky harmonies and Danielle Hodgins’ incomparable, mobile set. This brings a never-seen-before innovation called “thought bubbles,” something like a cartoonist’s dialogue balloons. They change color to suit moods, carry projected images of characters on stage, and also help your reviewer to spell “arteriovenous.”
This production runs through Saturday, May 14. See Times Table for information.
Risky business: Cast members of Syracuse University Drama Department’s A New Brain.