A New Brain a Smash at Barrington Stage
Revival of Bill Finn and James Lapine Musical
By: Charles Giuliano - Aug 25, 2023
A New Brain
Book by William Finn and James Lapine
Music and Lyrics by William Finn
Directed by Joe Calarco
Musical director Vadim Feichtner, Choreographed by Chloe O. Davis,
Costume Designer Debra Kim Sivigny, Scenic Designer Paige Hathaway, Lighting Designer Jason Lyons, Sound Designer Ken Travis
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.
Runs August 16-September 10, 2023
Boyd-Quinson Main Stage at Barrington Stage Company
30 Union Street in Pittsfield, MA.
Absorbing, insightful, fun and hilarious are dumbfounding but accurate terms to describe the William Finn and James Lapine musical A New Brain being revised at Barrington Stage Company. It's a musical about neurosurgery.
In the opening scene we see Adam Chanler-Berat as Gordon Scwinn, a surrogate for Finn, pecking despondently at a piano. His agent and best friend, Dorcas Leung as Rhoda, is flogging him to finish a tune for the inane TV kids show starring a frog (Andy Grotelueschen as Mr. Bungee). As a young artist it’s a gig he hates while trying to establish his true self. There’s a collapse and he is rushed to the emergency room. It proves to be serious.
In 1992, at age 40 and just weeks after winning two Tony Awards for “Falsettos,” Finn suffered symptoms leading to an initial diagnosis of a brain tumor. Tests revealed the condition, arteriovenous malformation, a knot of blood vessels in Gordon’s brain stem, which can be resolved by a dangerous operation.
Not one to squander such harrowing life experience it opened as a musical at Lincoln Center Theater in 1998. It was produced by Bernard Gersten. His daughter, Jenny Gersten, acting director for the troubled Williamstown Theatre Festival, now is collaborating with BSC’s Alan Paul to stage this work. It is the only full production this season by the former regional behemoth and in someone else’s theatre.
That neighborly assist speaks well for Alan Paul who has made all the right moves in his first season at BSC’s artistic director. He has orchestrated a smooth transition by pulling out all the trump cards of Barrington’s legacy. One of the aces was calling on Finn who is best known for Falsettos and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. In the early days the latter started in a high school in Sheffield and made it all the way to Broadway.
Which is where this sublime revival should be headed, if there is a producer out there with guts and bucks. Every aspect of the BSC production zings. Most prominently astonishing casting, and the superb direction of another Barrington ace in the hole, director Joe Calarco.
In one 90 minute act Brain is stuffed chockablock with music. There is just a spec of dialogue separating 30 plus songs ranging from heart wrenching ballads to full blast, over the top, production numbers.
For those in the largely elderly and limping audience, hospital scenes leading up to an eight hour operation that does not go as planned, will be grimly familiar. Gordon with limited access to family and friend is poked and probed relentlessly. There are good cop/ bad cop nurses and staff. Trust me, that’s all too true.
The songs of Finn are ultra quirky but the magnificent cast brings life and sense to them. There are a slew of barn burners and show stoppers.
In the original production, Mary Testa a Broadway legend and lifelong friend of Finn, played the tangential but meaty role of The Homeless Woman. Belting out the tunes assigned to her, "Mother's Gonnah Make Things Fine" Testa is a Jewish mother to end all Jewish mothers. While her son languishes in a coma, singing “Throw It Out,” she cleans his apartment by chucking all of Gordon’s books. It recalls when my Irish mom trashed my vast comic book collection which she regarded as clutter. Today all those Marvel comics would be worth a fortune.
The resourceful Homeless Woman is pushing a shopping cart selling Gordon’s treasures for two buck each. Salome B. Smith as The Homeless Woman just about steals the show with a huge, gospel inflected voice. She reaches for the rafters with “A Really Lousy Day in the Universe” and “Change.” Her name is bound to show up during awards season.
The relationship between Gordon and his lover, Darrell Purcell, Jr. as Roger, is handled with poignant intimacy. It struck me as Angels in America, the musical. Purcell has a powerful and richly nuanced voice. Not initially at the bedside he sings “I’d Rather Be Sailing.” The tender “Anytime” was cut in the first production and, thanks be to God, restored here. It is stunning and lovely.
Having been put through a rough ride the musical ends with the recovered Gordon back at the piano. The cast gathered round for a life affirming anthem “I Feel So Much Spring.” We didn’t leave the theatre so much as we were discharged.