A New Brain, in its St. Louis premiere by the New Line Theatre, is a musical about songwriter Gordon Schwinn, who is told unexpectedly that he has a rare brain disorder that will require risky surgery. Gordon wants to be remembered for his work, but right now his work is writing songs for a children's TV show. The sung-through story takes us through Gordon's surgery, subsequent coma and ultimate recovery, with some of the action taking place inside Gordon's head.
The same events happened to Brain's composer, lyricist and co-writer, William Finn. According to director Scott Miller's notes, Finn felt songs pouring out of him during his recovery and, with the help of playwright James Lapine, shaped these songs into the musical that became A New Brain. The problem is, the piece feels as if it was poured first and then shaped, rather than consciously designed. Finn, who also wrote the perplexingly popular Falsettos trilogy, is known for stretching the boundaries of the genre. But viewing his work is like watching somebody's thesis project for a master's degree in musical theater. They're good ideas for musicals, they look and sound like musicals, they're intermittently entertaining, but somehow they just don't add up.
The tone of both the play and the production is uneven. Miller, who also serves as musical director, keeps the pace almost too frantic, as if desperate to prove to us how entertaining the show is. As a result, the actors let many moments rush by and overplay others. When Mo Monahan, playing Gordon's mother, stands stock-still in a blue spangled dress and hurls "The Music Still Plays On" at us (an apparent homage to "I'm Still Here" that serves neither character nor story), we can almost feel the elbows nudging us, asking, "Isn't this dramatic?"
For a play that concerns a literal life-and-death situation, the stakes don't seem very high. The material contains hints of depth worth exploring, and, given that the musical has won accolades elsewhere, one must assume that substance lurks there somewhere. But the New Line production keeps things at a superficial level that makes emotional involvement difficult and at a strident musical level that wears on the audience. The solo singers seem to be battling the excellent but loud four-piece combo for volume, and the combo usually wins. Only in the ensemble numbers is there enough vocal power to overcome the accompaniment, and these are the best numbers in the show.
Singing is, of course, acting to music, and although the cast members all have fine voices, there's very little going on in the way of subtext, character development or emotional arcs. Some of this is the director's fault, some the playwrights'. Mike Heeter as Gordon could have been better served by both. Only in the wistful "And They're Off" does he manage to take the stage, control the song instead of letting it control him and show us something underneath Gordon's surface. Todd Schaefer, as Gordon's partner, Roger, possesses a fine voice and makes "Sailing" his own. But these two young actors just don't have the age or the gravity the play requires.
Several of the cast members do well with the material. Deborah Sharn is engaging and brings energy and depth to Rhoda, Schwinn's agent, but her character is left dangling by the script. She's obviously in love with Gordon, and what could have been an interesting subplot is frustratingly forgotten in the second act. The always excellent Terry Meddows does a fine job as Gordon's boss, the man-frog Mr. Bungee. The audience most enjoys the entertaining Nicholas Kelly as the self-effacing "nice nurse" Richard, and for good reason -- we feel as if we know him better than we know the main character.
I'm glad Finn recovered, and he deserves credit for experimenting with the form. But as my wife says, just because it happened to you doesn't mean it's interesting.