9/16/2023 A NEW BRAIN Jennie T. Anderson Concert Series
A GIFT OF TIME AND MUSIC
Composer/Lyricist William Finn (Falsettos, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee) survived a near-death brain surgery that he turned into a revue of songs about the experience. With the help of playwright James Lapine, these songs were eventually collected into the off-Broadway musical A New Brain, which ran at Lincoln Center in 1998, winning the 1999 Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding Off-Broadway Musical.
Just to get my biases out of the way, I have been a rabid fan of the 1998 recording of A New Brain and have been “chomping at the bit” to see a production for the past twenty years or so. But it is rarely performed, so, no opportunity has presented itself. Until Now!
Jono Davis and the Jennie T. Anderson Concert Series has thankfully mounted a criminally too-short two-day run in their always-excellent series of musical concerts. And it is a show of Infinite Joy ( * ) and breathlessly memorable music. To make things even better, a 2015 Encores Revival incorporated script changes and new songs that this production embraces. Is there a pleasure more profound than watching a show with a score you know so well you must pinch yourself to NOT sing along, only to hear a song you have never heard before? Thank goodness the 2015 revival was recorded. and, of course, I’m listening to it as I write this.
So, Gordon Schwinn is having a bad day. He aspires to write great music for the stage, but is trapped working for Mr. Bungee, a tyrannical frog who headlines a popular show for kids. Mr. Bungee wants the “Yes” song (talk about the worst possible “message” for kids) or maybe even the “Spring” song.
But Gordon is stuck, cranky, and mean to everyone he loves. But something is terribly wrong. He collapses during a “Kvetch Lunch” with his friend and manager Rhoda.
The hospital turns out to be a collection of neurotic health care workers who joyfully give bad news, then worse news, then worserer news. Or maybe Gordon is just imagining all this tsuris. A taunting Mr. Bungee isn’t really scampering around the room, is he? And where is Gordon’s partner, Roger?
Well Roger LOVES sailing (“Sex is nice, but I’d rather be sailing”), an activity Gordon absolutely hates. So Roger is off by himself, stuck in calm waters. In spite of this critical divide, they are overall happy(ish), and Roger eventually joins Rhoda and Gordon’s neurotic mother (Mimi) at his bedside.
It turns out Gordon (and we presume William Finn) has a congenital condition known as Arteriovenous Malformation. (Google it if you want to explore a shudder-inducing trip down the on-line medical rabbit hole. My spouse spends a lot of time down there – if you see her, tell her I miss her.) But it couldn’t be “Mom’s Fault” because any bad traits are inherited from Absent Father. Of course.
We know Gordon’s treatment will eventually succeed, because, after all Finn survived to write all these wonderful songs. Songs like “Gordo’s Law of Genetics” (“The bad trait will always predominate”), “And They’re Off” (in which Dad bets the family fortune on a horse that loses), Roger’s rapturous “I’d rather be Sailing,” Mimi’s plaintive “The Music Still Plays On” (a beautifully ambivalent ballad about Motherhood and Love and Loss), and especially “Heart and Music” (Gordon’s unconditional paean to the healing power of song) and its 11 o’clock reprise “Time and Music.”
Although this is a concert version of the show, director Justin Anderson has made a plethora of dazzling staging choices that allows the ensemble to be onstage for much of the show, popping into and out of different characters that are in Gordon’s orbit. Large props and set pieces (usually shunned here) glide in and out as smoothly as a musical segue.
And this is a truly glorious ensemble. James Allen McCune dazzles as Gordon, a character who is a bit of a pill to those who love him, and yet Mr. McCune …
Sorry, I have to interrupt myself to share. At one point Gordon’s surgeon says he can’t stay with him the night before the show because he and his kids have tickets to Moulin Rouge. The recording just reached that point, and the show they’re seeing is appropriately Fun Home. Sorry, it just made me laugh.
Where was I?
Oh, yes! The glorious ensemble. James Allen McCune dazzles as Gordon, a character who is a bit of a pill to those who love him, and yet Mr. McCune gives him a charm that is strangely appealing. As Roger, Benjamin DeWitt Sims sings like a velvet angel, and shows an unequivocal devotion to Gordon that makes us believe this relationship is alive and well and living in New York. As Mimi, Mary Nye Bennett is a whirlwind of maternal optimism and judgment. Jillian Melko gives us a Rhoda who will drop everything in the name of friendship, beautifully running interference with the despotic Mr. Bungee. And, in a ridiculously apt frog costume, Jeff McKerley makes Mr. Bungee (or at least Gordon’s hallucinations of him) a comic force of lily-pad-sourced nature.
In other roles, Alyssa Michele is a homeless woman who ends up with all of Gordon’s books (how that happens is something you’ll need to learn from Mimi), Jim Bray is “the nice nurse.” Isa Martinez is “the mean nurse,” Jody Woodruff is the musical-loving surgeon, and Russell Alexander II is a clueless minister,
All the ensemble provide background vocals that fill out the score, and, during Gordon’s coma, come into their own in a phantasmagorical sequence of character and eccentricity and music.
But what really centers this show is the love of music, and the sheer joy of close-call survival, that there is time for music, time for family, time for friends, time for love and sex and joy, and maybe even time for Mr. Bungee. There is nothing like a near-death experience to make you really find joy in all those things that used to drive you crazy.
And Schwinn/Finn’s profound joy in the new-found future imbues the ecstatic finale with a rapturousness that can ONLY be expressed in song. In song that includes EVERYBODY.
A New Brain is a jubilant love letter to the joint gifts of Time and Music. And this entire production is a welcome gift to all of us fortunate enough to experience it!
-- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com #JennieTAndersonConcerts #ANewBrain)
( * ) Finn fanatics will “get” the pun. The rest of you should google “William Finn Infinite Joy” or search for it in whatever music-streaming service you prefer.