"Something is wrong," the bewildered hero cries out as a stunning headache attacks him early in William Finn's A New Brain. But at Webster University something is very right indeed. Again. Three years ago this week, the Webster Conservatory of Theatre Arts mounted a winning production of Jeanine Tesori's Violet. Now the same creative team responsible for that musical director David Caldwell, musical director Neal Richardson and choreographer Ellen Isom has reunited with equally marvelous results. Their inventive staging transforms this quirky musical about high-risk brain surgery into a joyous ode to life.
A New Brain was inspired by an episode in Finn's life. Here his alter ego, Gordon Schwinn, is dying a slow death even before he learns about his physical infirmity. As a frustrated songwriter for a roller-skating frog on the Mr. Bungee kiddie TV show, Gordon is furious with himself and with the world at large. When he is diagnosed with a rare, life-threatening brain disorder, he assumes the hopeless worst. Then he realizes he's been given the opportunity to try to heal both his body and his creative spirit.
But Finn is not content merely to tell Gordon's story. As he displayed in Falsettos, his evening of two one-act musicals set in the 1980s against a backdrop of the AIDS plague, Finn is a perceptive social critic. In A New Brain we meet a homeless woman (Victoria Watson, hauntingly good) who asks for change. After she rejects Gordon's offer of paper money "All I'm asking for is change!" it dawns on the viewer that change is being utilized as both a noun and a verb. The plot is operating on multiple levels. It's not just that Gordon needs a change in his career; Finn is suggesting that our very way of life requires radical surgery.
There are other levels here. Sometimes we are in the present, sometimes in the past; eventually we enter Gordon's brain for surrealistic hallucinations during his coma. Thanks to the production team, these changes are clearly delineated. The triad of Caldwell, Richardson and Isom is a testament to the possibilities of collaboration when everyone wants to tell the same story.
Isom's exuberant choreography ricochets across the Studio theater stage; even Gordon's wheelchair seems to want to dance. Richardson's musical accompaniment seems to be restricted to one keyboard, thus allowing the lyrics to be heard which is very smart, because the show is mostly sung: ballads, patter songs, torch songs, doo-wop, pop, tangos. As Gordon sings about "all the songs I never wrote," one senses that the songs Finn never wrote eventually got written, and they're all here.
Director Caldwell is surely responsible for performance's clarity. This is not one of those musicals where actors stand around waiting to deliver their next line. Every silent moment is filled out. Let's also credit Caldwell for something seemingly small yet critically important: The scene changes occur so quickly, you barely know they're happening, thus allowing the show's momentum to keep building.
Then let's add a fourth person into the mix. The costumes by John C. Houston IV are astonishingly effective. There are only ten actors on stage, but by evening's end they've worn enough clothes to dress a small army. And everything they wear, from Mr. Bungee's crazy frog getup to the homeless woman's wild array of colored socks and scarves to the solid-color shirts worn by Gordon's lover, enhances character. This is fabulously imaginative work. Nor can too much be said about the ensemble cast. Beginning with Adam Henry's heartfelt performance as Gordon, there's not a weak link in the bunch. Though space precludes mentioning them all, Justin D. Cook, who brings hilarious attitude to the male nurse, bears singling out.
As soon as Gordon is admitted to the hospital, the cast peals its way through the show's jubilant anthem, "Heart and Music." By evening's end that same song is reprised as "Time and Music," a poignant affirmation that life is the ultimate gift. But for just now this triumphant production is another kind of gift, the temporal kind that only theater can give, yet as unexpected and fleeting as life itself.