by Paula Kaplan-Reiss
A New Brain, by William Finn, is receiving a new life at Barrington Stage in a collaboration with Williamstown Theatre Festival. What a thrill to have the playwright/composer in the audience to witness this exceptional revival, first produced at Lincoln Center in 1998 and revived in 2015. An Associate Artist with BSC, Finn is also a graduate of Williams College who went on to write Tony Award winning Falsettos and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, to name a few of his successful musicals.
With the outline of a giant brain with neurons and folds lit up as the backdrop on the stage, we quickly learn of Gordon Schwinn’s (Adam Chanler-Berat) need for life-threatening brain surgery, based on Finn’s own medical history. Gordon is a struggling song writer working for a silly children’s show starring a frog, who longs to write meaningful songs and music. With an arteriovenous malformation, Gordon learns he may not live to become a great artist.
The entire show, with a dynamite ensemble, is sung. The opening number, “Heart and Music,” sets the tone of the importance of both elements in making a song and living life. Gordon’s lover, Roger (Darrell Purcell, Jr.), is a man who loves sailing and eventually shows that he loves Schwinn as he reassures him he will stick with him through his illness. His mother (Mary Testa) joins Schwinn as a dominating force, wanting to make everything better, but understandably fearful she will lose her son.
Rounding out the cast is Gordon’s best friend, Rhoda (Dorcas Leung), his cocky Doctor (Tally Sessions), his nasty nurse, Nancy D. (Justine Horihata Rappaport), his hysterically funny nurse, Richard (Eliseo Roman), an unwanted Minister for Jewish Gordon (Demond Green), and Mr. Bungee, the TV Host frog and Schwinn’s demanding boss (Andy Grotelueschen). The Homeless Woman (Salome B. Smith) represents the soul and Greek chorus of the ensemble.
The plot takes us through Gordon’s diagnosis, surgery and hoped for recovery. Yet, we dive into all of Gordon’s struggles about prioritizing his relationship and his work. We see his mother’s disappointment with Gordon’s father and Gordon’s life choices. And we see the Mother and Roger’s ultimate fear that Gordon will be brain dead. For a story describing a terminal illness, it is infused with humor, comedy, and a lot of heart.
Chanler-Berat as Gordon gives a solid strong performance. We feel his frustration and his fear and his need to leave his musical mark on the world, above all else. He gets everyone to root for him and be sympathetic towards him. The cast revolves around him.
The surrounding actors provide excitement and passion. Testa, as Mother, was in the original A New Brain playing The Homeless Woman. She has had a longstanding relationship with Finn, meeting him in college and seeing him through his illness. Conveying intensity and anxiety, her powerful belt and take-charge attitude mirrors a Mama Rose/Ethel Merman character. Testa, a Tony nominee and Obie Award winner with a long list of hit Broadway credits has no difficulty imbuing her role with honesty and love.
Purcell, Jr., as Roger, enters with a beautiful song, “I’d Rather Be Sailing,” sung with a melt-your-heart voice. A seemingly mis-matched pair, he ultimately steps up to the plate conveying his love and loyalty to Gordon. His strong presence complements Gordon’s neurotic style.
Grotelueschen, as Mr. Bungee, brings behind-the-scenes evil to his children’s TV host, dressed as a frog riding a trike. He demands constant rhymes for his songs, and wants a song about saying YES, while Gordon is laid up in the hospital, seemingly ignoring the severity of his condition. The show must go on. He makes us laugh, while being irritated by him.
Sessions, as The Doctor, has a striking deep voice, which stands out, yet blends beautifully with the ensemble. A no-nonsense, confident surgeon, he offers Gordon a craniotomy, but essentially says he has no other options. Alternately, he plays Gordon’s gambling, no-good father opposite Testa.
Both nurses, played by Rappaport and Roman, have distinct funny characters who move and sing wonderfully. Roman, in particular, as Roger, leads a funny, self-deprecating song, “Poor, Unsuccessful and Fat,” decrying his lot in life.
Smith, as The Homeless Woman, brings down the house with her incredible powerhouse voice and presence. She’s needy, tough, and funny, asking for “Change” (in every possible definition of the word), while “we live in perilous times.”
As an ensemble, this group moves together, while portraying very different characters. Choreographed by Chloe O. Davis, the cast tangoes to Gordon singing “Brain Dead,” while he is hooked up to a life-size Operation game. Very clever.
Thanks to Director, Joe Calarco, Scenic Designer, Paige Hathaway and Lighting Designer, Jason Lyons, Barrington Stage is used effectively and simply in telling this story. While in most scenes the brain backdrop and lights dominate the scene, a sheer curtain is used to both cordon off a hospital room and portray the backdrop of a sail as Roger sings. The simple set pieces of a hospital room are in place, with pops of personal color of a pillow, blanket and flowers provided by the Mother to make the sterile environment more homey. Different colored lights highlight the changes in mood and songs as the play progresses. The sound design by Ken Travis enables us to hear every note and sharp lyric.
In general, costumes designed by Debra Kim Sivigny are realistic and natural, with hospital garb for the patient and staff, street clothes for the ensemble players. Mr. Bungee looks straight out of Oz playing a human frog. I struggled with the Mother’s wardrobe and wig. In general, she is made to look matronly in dresses and heels. But her blonde wig screams out as fake hair and distracted me at the very outset. Testa has great curls. Why not use them?
This wonderful cast, musically directed by Vadim Feichtner, concludes the show singing about “Time and Music” as being all we need to survive and keep us alive. I agree. May William Finn, with his repaired, not new gifted brain, have much more time to bring us more musicals performed by talented, committed actors.
A New Brain, book by William Finn and James Lapine, music and lyrics by William Finn, directed by Joe Calarco, runs August 16-September 10, 2023, on the Boyd-Quinson Main Stage at Barrington Stage Company, 30 Union Street in Pittsfield, MA. Musical director Vadim Feichtner, choreographed by Chloe O. Davis. CAST: Adam Chanler-Berat as Gordon Scwinn, Demond Green as The Minister, Andy Grotelueschen as Mr. Bungee, Dorcas Leung as Rhoda, Darrell Purcell, Jr. as Roger, Justine Horihata Rappaport as Nancy D., Eliseo Román as Richard, Tally Sessions as The Doctor, Salome B. Smith as The Homeless Woman, Mary Testa as The Mother. Costume Designer Debra Kim Sivigny, Scenic Designer Paige Hathaway, Lighting Designer Jason Lyons, Sound Designer Ken Travis, Production Stage Manager John Godbout, Assistant Stage Manager Leslie Sears.
For tickets to A New Brain, please call the BSC Box Office at 413-236-8888 or visit www.BarringtonStageCo.org/Tickets.