Hindi Greenberg: ‘A New Brain’ will entertain your brain!
The musical, “A New Brain,” is thoroughly enjoyable and wonderfully staged and performed. It’s another “don’t miss it” production from Sierra Stages.
But how can a play dealing with a possible life-ending congenital brain malformation result in a funny musical? Because it’s based on composer-lyricist William Finn’s actual harrowing experience.
Written soon after his release from the hospital, and presented in his own idiosyncratic style, using metaphors, relentless humor, raw emotion, love, cynicism and hallucinations to convey his paean to hope, love, the healing quality of music and the responsibility to live life fully. Plus, he throws in a singing, dancing man-frog for good measure.
“A New Brain” has music and lyrics by Finn (who won Tony Awards in 1992 for “Falsettos” just weeks before he was hospitalized), with book by Finn and James Lapine. The nearly sung-through musical premiered Off-Broadway in 1998.
The story follows Gordon, a frustrated composer employed to write songs for a children’s show staring the acerbic, maniacal Mr. Bungee, a frog. Gordon, negative and sarcastic, feels he has talent that he can’t express.
His lover Roger is the calming, stabilizing influence in Gordon’s life, whereas his relationship with his mother Mimi is fraught with anger and history.
Then Gordon is diagnosed with a brain malformation, undergoes successful surgery and all of the people in his support system become the Greek chorus to his life, singing pop, jazz and rocking-style songs.
After he realizes that he always had music inside himself and he just needed “a new brain” — a new way of thinking — Gordon is finally able to open up, relax and express it.
The entire play, with its hallucinatory scenes, bag lady belt-out numbers, nice nurse lament and Mr. Froggy on a scooter, are musically superb and often laugh-out-loud funny — with a touching moment here and there.
All ten actors exhibit amazing ensemble acting and marvelous tunefulness on the three, four and eight part harmony numbers. Noteworthy is the vocally mellifluous Jay Barker as Gordon — watch his expressive face on the screen during his MRI exam.
New to the stage in Nevada County is Brian Arsenault as Roger, with his sweet portrayal, smooth physicality and wonderful voice. Ken Miele was made to act, sing and prance around as Mr. Bungee — what a hoot!
When Sara Noah, as Gordon’s mother Mimi, musically grieves about Gordon, it’s hard not to shed a tear. A revelation is Kevin Lucas-Ross as Richard, the nice nurse, singing his amusing lament of “Poor, Unsuccessful and Fat.” And Kate Haight as Lisa, the homeless lady, once again demonstrates her acute comedic sensibility and ability to belt out a grand song.
An excellent nine piece band is seated next to the stage, with exceptional musical direction of the melodic, but obviously complex music, by Ken Getz on keyboards.
Co-directors Robert Rossman and Jailyn Tafolla pull out all creative stops to emphasize the music and humor, but also the meaningfulness of the piece.
Rossman’s simple, but eye-catching set, along with Erin Beatie and Hunter Schott’s excellent lighting, Peter A. Mason’s resonant sound, and the imaginative costumes by Paulette Sand-Gilbert all contribute to the resultant complete package.
Don’t miss this funny, melodious, thoughtful play, continuing through March 17 at the Nevada Theatre.
Hindi Greenberg, who can barely carry a tune, is always in awe of great voices and well-done vocal harmony. This particular play definitely has both in quantity.
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