Published in Gay and Lesbian Times November 07, 2002
There may have been a time or two when you really thought you needed a new brain — but you probably didn’t mean it literally — and you weren’t saying it in song. Of course, you’re not William Finn.
Two months after Finn snagged a Tony Award for “Falsettos” in 1992, he passed out on his pasta, and was mis-diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. Later, he was found to have ateriovenous malformation, a rare condition that causes fluid to build up on the brain and requires delicate surgery, which he was told, would either cure him or kill him. Sounds pretty light-hearted for a musical, huh? Well, since Finn lived to write the uplifting, semi-auto-biographical chamber piece, we know the outcome, but it’s still gut-wrenching to accompany him through his MRI, coma and hallucinations.
In “A New Brain,” Gordon Schwinn, Finn’s equally neurotic, name-rhyming alter-ego, is a frustrated writer of songs for a children’s show hosted by a hateful frog-man, Mr. Bungee. After he zones out on his ziti while dining with his funny-cynical friend/agent Rhoda, Schwinn is whisked off to the hospital and we’re swept along on his surreal journey, from depressive, dying patient to grateful, life-affirming survivor. Most of the show and its tuneful melodies occur in the writer’s mind, as all his worst fears and nightmares take musical shape, and ultimately bring him through his catastrophe to renewal and rebirth.
We meet the repugnant faux-reptile Mr. Bungee, demanding a song right up until the moment of Gordon’s surgery. And then there’s Gordy’s eternally upbeat Jewish mother, who insists that she’s “Gonna Make Things Fine,” even while she’s gnashing her teeth and writing him off. There’s a Nice Nurse and a nasty one, a Doctor, a Minister and a Homeless Lady. All of them, along with Gordon’s WASPy, sailboat-loving boyfriend, keep making return appearances to sing quirky, funny, stirring, sentimental or off-the-wall songs that push him on to make it through, so he can write the memorable song that’s his life’s dream. This ambition, coupled with the enigmatic (here annoying/nagging street-person), are more than a little reminiscent of “Rent,” but there’s a happier ending here and mercifully, despite the dark beginnings, no one dies.
Fresh from his wonderful turn with the equally difficult non-musical, “Master Class,” director/professor Rick Simas has scored again, with some inventive and imaginative staging that really heightens the humor. “And They’re Off,” with the ensemble scooting rapidly down a ramp on wheeled hobbyhorses, is especially inspired. The musical accompaniment (Terry O’Donnell on piano, Wendy Thomson on electric keyboards and Don Kuhli on percussion) is terrific; this show is sung-through and the score is no walk in the park. But it’s often fun, if overly schmaltzy at times, and even singable (“Heart and Music” is particularly striking, the “Brain Dead” tango is sick humor at its best, and “Throw it Out” is witty and literate).
What’s most impressive in this production is the cast, a talented group of students who move the piece and make it moving. Not everyone is perfectly cast, but the singing is superb, and this brand new crop of MFA candidates in Musical Theatre is a delight. It’s a culturally diverse crew, the products of a highly selective process. SDSU has one of only five MFA programs in musical theater in the country.
Matthew Weeden is thoroughly endearing as Gordon, and Ivy Vela is a hoot as the waitress who musically rhymes ‘yes indeedy’ with ‘ziti.’ Susan DeLeon, an undergraduate with an Equity pedigree, brings class and personality to the Mom, Amber Snead makes the now-female Nice Nurse a force to be reckoned with, and Kristen Mengelkoch shows attitude and spunk as Rhoda. The rest are of the nine graduate performers are clearly capable as well. It will be exciting to watch them grow into full-fledged professionals over the next two years. Look for them next spring in Sondheim’s first musical, “Saturday Night.” Take ’em to the edge and they’ll fly.
“A New Brain” had a brief run (10/25-11/3) at San Diego State University. Watch for their next production, “Romeo and Juliet,” Nov. 22-Dec. 8; 619-594-6884.
©2002 Patté Productions Inc.