Sometimes it takes a brush with death to get a new lease on life. That’s the premise and the promise of Theatre Horizon’s powerhouse production of A NEW BRAIN. The thinly fictionalized autobiographical musical was the result of Tony-Award winner William Finn’s diagnosis with a life-threatening condition (AVM, or arterial venous malformation), potentially fatal surgery, and extended recovery, which taught him to appreciate what he loves and to make good use the time we are given. Oh, and it’s a comedy!
The mostly sung-through story, with music and lyrics by Finn and book by Finn and James Lapine, takes an off-beat look at the life-changing events and emotions of the composer (here named Gordon Schwinn), with surreal episodes of disorientation, hallucination, and exaggeration, as someone suffering brain trauma and facing death would actually see them. There are magnified visions of the nagging issues he has with his boss, mother, and lover, hyperbolized characterizations of the hospital staff that treats him, and an over-the-top homeless woman, who repeatedly asks for much-needed “Change”–in both senses of the word. He gets it, as he focuses his second chance at life on “Heart and Music.”
A phenomenal cast, directed with bravura and sensitivity by Matthew Decker, delivers all of the humor and pathos inherent in the story, with explosive vocals, supported by an outstanding orchestra, that convey a mastery of Finn’s challenging score (top-notch music direction by Amanda Morton). The always irresistible Steve Pacek stars as Gordon, bringing his rich voice, subtle comic timing, and heartfelt emotion to the role. Doug Hara is a devilish delight as his boss Mr. Bungee–the mean but perky star of a children’s TV show, for which Gordon hates writing songs—as he scoots around the stage, in and out of the scenes, dressed as his eponymous frog character (costumes by Jillian Keys).
Among the most amusing numbers are “Whenever I Dream,” performed as a ventriloquist-and-puppet duet by Pacek and the terrific Rachel Camp, who plays Gordon’s agent and best friend Rhoda, and the ensemble’s doo-wop harmony and rubber-gloved jazz hands in “Gordo’s Law of Genetics,” with ebullient choreography by Jenn Rose. As Mimi–Gordon’s loving, but sometimes annoying, mom (or as he says with exasperation, “MOM!”)–Susan Riley Stevens belts out “Mother’s Gonna Make Things Fine” in the rousing style of Gypsy’s Mama Rose, and then breaks our hearts with her rendition of the poignant ballad “The Music Still Plays On.”
Rounding out the ensemble are Larry Lees, Mina Kawahara, and Christian Eason as the doctor, nurse, and minister sorely lacking in bedside manner; Rob Tucker as the nice nurse who relishes giving Gordon a sponge bath; Melissa Joy Hart as the impactful street person Lisa; and Peter Carrier as Roger, Gordon’s devoted boyfriend with a passion for “Sailing.” All are across-the-board excellent in their characterizations and vocals (with clear and balanced sound by Nick Kourtides).
The simple set design by Brian Dukiewicz, with a geometric screen of translucent white panels, allows for shadow scenes to be played, and for Oona Curley’s lighting to illuminate the action and the moods with glowing colors, from behind.Prop masterChris Haig provides all of the necessary accoutrements for the shifting narrative and plentiful sight gags (including the running joke of Gordon’s taste for soda and junk food).
A NEW BRAIN is an all-around funny, effective, and life-affirming reminder that we “should have done it,” that we all want “something to be remembered by,” and above all, “Don’t Give In.”
[401 DeKalb St., Norristown, PA] October 13-November 6, 2016; theatrehorizon.org.