KPBS AIRDATE: November 01, 2002
One new brain plus one new world = two new musicals. The San Diego premieres of two small, off-beat musical diversions are featured in surprising venues: Jason Robert Brown’s “Songs for a New World” is at Actor’s Asylum, and William Finn’s “A New Brain” at SDSU. Both are intimate, personal pieces about critical moments in life. They’re quirky, challenging, complex and commendable undertakings. That’s not to say they’re wholly successful or satisfying, either as musicals or productions, but if you’re a devotee of the musical form, they’re not to be missed.
Finn’s show is by far the more interesting of the two. “A New Brain” is, believe it or not, an uplifting, darkly comic, semi-autobiographical musical about neurosurgery. Two months after Finn snagged a Tony Award for “Falsettos,” he was diagnosed with a rare brain defect that requires surgery which could either cure him or kill him. Sounds pretty musically light-hearted, huh? Of course, since he lived to write the chamber piece, we know the outcome, but it’s no less gut-wrenching to accompany him through his MRI, coma and hallucinations.
Gordon Schwinn, William Finn’s neurotic, name-rhyming alter-ego, is a frustrated writer of songs for a children’s show hosted by a hateful frog-man, Mr. Bungee. Most of the show and its tuneful melodies occur in the writer’s mind, as all his worst fears take musical shape, and ultimately bring him through his catastrophe to renewal and rebirth. Director/professor Rick Simas has scored again, fresh from his wonderful turn with the equally difficult non-musical “Master Class.” But it’s his new charges that really sparkle and shine. Not everyone is perfectly cast, but the singing is superb, and this brand new crop of MFA students in Musical Theatre is a delight. It will be exciting to watch them grow into full-fledged professionals over the next two years.
Now, if brain surgery isn’t particularly funny, neither is “Songs for a New World.” Jason Robert Brown was only 25 when he put together these disparate songs from various sources, just a few years before he won the Tony for “Parade.” With no plot or interactive characters, it’s a series of numbers about people at crisis-points in their lives, but the revue seems rather random, often sentimental or preachy, and it relies on spectacular performances to make it sing. The four folks at Actor’s Asylum are very good, but there’s not quite enough range in the songs or the performers. Ultimately, in the 2nd act, lovely-voiced Sandy Campbell, appealing Scott Lacy, Warren Nolan and the comical Lee Lampard each get a moment or two of musical glory. In these times of safe, middle-of-the-road choices, experimental or atypical shows are refreshing, and risk-taking theaters should be attended and applauded.
©2002 Patté Productions Inc.