You can be forgiven if you’ve never heard of William Finn’s 1998 quirky, feel-good musical A New Brain. The autobiographical tale, based on Finn’s own experience surviving a risky operation to correct an arteriovenous malformation in the brain, began life as a series of songs, written in the aftermath of Finn’s illness, that were then threaded together in collaboration with James Lapine to form a story; the musical had a relatively brief run Off-Broadway in 1998 and has been staged relatively sporadically since, most recently in 2015, as a concert performance at New York City Center.
The show’s origins help explain why, despite the energy and complexity of the music, it has had such low visibility; as Ben Brantley wrote in his 1998 review, the musical as a whole has a “spliced-together feeling,” in which the songs don’t really fully coalesce into a coherent book musical. Nonetheless, Front Porch Theatricals’ fine production, directed by Conor McCanlus, highlights the strengths of the material to create a captivating evening of theater.
John Wascavage plays songwriter Gordon Michael Schwinn, who feels he is wasting his talent writing – or failing to write – songs for a children’s theater show hosted by a frog puppet named Mr. Bungee (Matthew J. Rush). He suffers what at first appears to be a stroke in the midst of a business lunch with his agent Rhoda (Meredith Kate Doyle); at the hospital he learns that his condition is genetic, and that he’ll need to undergo major, risky brain surgery to correct it. His mother Mimi (Becki Toth) arrives, full of Jewish motherly insistence that she will make everything all right, and his dashing, WASP-ish boyfriend Roger (Jeremy Spoljarick) is summoned from his sailing vacation to join him at his side. These characters and their concerns swirl around him, but the majority of the action takes place inside Gordon’s head, as he worries, reflects, and hallucinates in the lead up and aftermath to his operation.
McCanlus stages most of the play as a kind of hallucinatory dream, which is an excellent choice given the disjunctive nature of the songs – there is virtually no spoken dialogue, and the songs themselves stand more as ruminations on a theme than drivers of plot (and often have lyrics that don’t fully make logical sense, much like a dream). McCanlus uses ensemble movement skillfully to populate Gordon’s interior consciousness on stage, with swirls and groupings that evoke the feeling of a dream’s disorganized chaos. And although the subject matter is heavy with existential angst – Gordon is grappling both with his fear of death and his despair over having wasted his talent and failed to leave any significant work behind – McCanlus keeps the mood light and sly, emphasizing moments of irony and self-deprecation. Top among those is a scene in which Gordon’s boyfriend Roger appears in his daydream, parodically kitted out by costume designer Natalie Burton in a billowy white shirt unbuttoned to the navel (à la Colin Firth as Mr. Darcy), to sing his love-song-that-is-not-a-love-song “Sailing.”
The pleasure in A New Brain derives primarily from the music rather than the story, and in that department this production delivers. Music Director Deana Muro magically conducts a nearly flawless live orchestra from below the floor, and the vocal talent in this production is some of the best I’ve seen on a Pittsburgh stage. Wascavage is excellent as Gordon, with a clear tenor and a terrific ability to sell both the wit and the emotional content of his songs. Spoljarick’s gorgeously rounded, plummy baritone is a standout in the cast, and his rendition of “Sailing” is swoon-worthy. Becki Toth once again proves herself to be one of the best musical comedy singers in town, belting out the huge ballad “Throw it Out!” one moment and then silkily caressing the devastatingly sad torch song “Music Still Plays On” the next, her deep alto inviting you to melt into the music. Drew Leigh Williams, who plays Lisa, a homeless woman, is another vocal powerhouse in the cast, knocking her big number “Change” out of the ballpark. The terrifically talented ensemble also includes the wry Brady D. Patsy as the “nice” nurse Richard, Mei Lu Barnum as the Waitress, Lauren Maria Medina as the “mean” nurse, Nancy D., Pierre Mballa as Dr. Jafar Berensteiner, and David Ieong as the Minister.