A New Brain’s Got Heart and Music

In the early 1990s American musical theatre composer William Finn (25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Falsettos, Elegies: a Song Cycle) was hospitalized and diagnosed with arteriovenous malformation in the brain, which led to a near death experience resulting in brain surgery. It is clear that his 1998 musical A New Brain, now playing at the Berkeley Street Theatre Downstairs (produced by Acting Up Stage Theatre Company), is strongly autobiographical and I think, highly subjective. The result is a very quirky, often catchy, and at times strikingly poignant, trip inside the mind of protagonist Gordon Schwinn.
While watching this show, I wondered how much had been conceived while Finn was sitting in a hospital bed, sick, scared and drugged up on codeine. Just as Kander and Ebb turned the 1920s criminal justice system into a nightclub for Chicago, Finn also seems to be making the argument that “all the world’s a stage” and that it’s “all show business, kid… the whole world, show business.” The rhythms of the hospital mix with Gordon’s hallucinations and fantasies and become production numbers. There are echoes of “We Both Reached for the Gun” and “The Tango Maureen,” which seem like just the sort of images that would haunt a Broadway aficionado’s subconscious. When thrown together, along with the images of Mr. Bungee, Gordon’s hateful boss, dressed as a giant frog, it becomes absurdist, but firmly rooted in heart and humanity. And oddly enough, it seems plausible because Gordon’s brain is supposed to be running wild, and we’re being taken along for the ride.
Steven Gallagher plays Gordon, a composer grudgingly writing songs for frogs on Mr. Bungee’s Children’s TV show, who uses music and art to propel himself through his harrowing near-death experience. Gallagher plays Gordon with a remarkable balance of impatience, snarkiness, vulnerability, humanity and likeability. He has a beautifully gripping moment where he confronts his mortality in “In the Middle of the Room,” and he sells the odd (yet visually and musically fantastic) production numbers like “Gordo’s Law of Genetics” with his energy and the sense that he is conducting this show happening in his brain. There is a lovely moment at the end of the show where Gordon muses about how he is entirely different, and yet exactly the same, a contradiction of humanity that Gallagher nails perfectly.
I get the sense that the characters in A New Brain are constructed from Gordon’s perspective, which means that they tend towards the general and vague. Gordon’s boyfriend, Roger, for example, is the pinnacle paragon of perfection, while his mother’s idea of Heaven is a date with Mr. Clean. But in the hands of this phenomenal cast, moments of eloquence keep shining through. Thom Allison has a show stopping moment with “Sailing,” which shows off his gorgeous voice magnificently, and he and Paula Wolfson have a heart-wrenching duet “A Really Lousy Day in the Universe.” Wolfson also stops the show with her rendition of “Change.” Barbara Barsky shines particularly bright while singing “The Music Still Plays On.” Patricia Zentilli gives such humanity to Rhoda, a character that is only really seen in snippets, and her rendition of the extremely peculiar “Whenever I Dream,” confirms my hunch that she can do anything. Steve Ross is most endearing as Richard “the nice nurse” and has a star turn in the fantastic “Eating Myself Up Alive,” which is one of the highlights of the show.
The direction by Daryl Cloran is particularly smooth and clear. He is able to give the audience a clearer picture of what is happening in real life, and what is the product of Gordon’s imagination/hallucination. The entire show seems to run simply and cleanly and the choreography by Marc Kimelman is lively, bright, charming and fun. I did feel that Juan Chioran as Mr. Bungee had found truly clever, funny moments that may have been overshadowed by his costume, and perhaps he would have been even funnier if his clothes had been more suggestive of a frog, rather than being so literal.
A New Brain may leave your mind spinning, the songs will undoubtedly stick in your brain (“yes, yes, yes, is a good word. Yes, yes, yes is a very special word.), but at the end of the day, the image that stuck with me was one of joy, of hope, and of life. In his Programme Notes, Artistic Producer Mitchell Marcus quoted William Finn saying, “at the piano, there was just all this gratitude that I was alive, and all this life spewing out of me,” and this cast, especially Steven Gallagher, have this infectious, honest, joy about being on that stage and in this moment that is so palpable. I think it would be impossible for you to leave the Berkeley without your heart feeling a little lighter.

A New Brain plays until March 1st at the Berkeley Street Theatre Downstairs (26 Berkeley Street). For more information and to book your tickets visit www.anewbrain.ca.

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