Thursday, June 25, 2015

Margin Notes: A New Brain

Jonathan Groff and Dan Fogler as Gordon and
Mr. Bungee. Photo by Joan Marcus.
Seen on: Wednesday, 6/24/15.
My grade: A.

Plot and Background
A semi-autobiographical musical, inspired by a potentially terminal brain diagnosis composer William Finn received, A New Brain follows Gordon Schwinn, a struggling composer working for a children's show he abhors as he tries to balance his love life, his overbearing mother, and his dream of writing something brilliant before he dies - which may be all too soon. Finn began writing the songs for this show - with collaborator James Lapine's encouragement - soon after his discharge from the hospital. The show was originally workshopped in 1996 and 1997 before its Lincoln Center Off-Broadway run in 1998. It is presented here as part of New York City Center's Encores! Off-Center Series.

What I Knew Beforehand
I was extremely familiar with the original cast recording, though I've never read the script nor seen the show performed live.


Play: James Lapine proves once again to be as skilled a director as he is a writer, effectively staging the production to such a professional and clean degree that one can only barely call it a concert (Equity rules probably still require us to call it that). The shows moves quickly and fluidly from scene to scene, and Josh Prince's choreography, best displayed in "And They're Off" and the tango "Brain Dead" is fun and kinetic. Lapine manages to maintain the sense of play Finn wrote into the score, with Gordon wryly conducting the ensemble in "Gordo's Law of Genetics," while also giving space and time to the more poignant moments like "Really Lousy Day in the Universe" or "The Music Still Plays On." I was a fan of the show already, but I did appreciate the revisions made to the score (sure, I miss "Calamari," but they cut several of the songs I always skip on the CD, so that's cool, too). I could see this very easily transferring to a commercial run, if the producers feel so inclined, though they may have to wait for Jonathan Groff's schedule to clear up (incidentally, his upcoming Hamilton gig gave a fun little punch to Lisa's line, "I don't care if you're the King of England").

Cast: Jonathan Groff is just lovely in the main role of Gordon (a role which, incidentally, doesn't allow him to leave the stage once). He has an inherent likeability, in addition to his strong leading presence and tenor voice, that draws our affection even when Gordon is at his bitchiest. Ana Gasteyer is especially powerful as his mother, balancing the upbeat face she puts on with the scared vulnerability of a mother afraid to lose her son (she also sounds fantastic). Dan Fogler brings a malevolent comedy to Gordon's hallucinated froggy boss Mr. Bungee, and the rest of the ensemble is in strong voice, working well together to help build and supplement the world - both within Gordon's mind and without.


Running: Now playing at New York City Center (Encores! Off-Center Series) - Closing: June 27, 2015
Category: concert staging of a musical
Length: 1 hour, 40 minutes, including intermission.

Creative Team

Book: William Finn and James Lapine
Music & Lyrics: William Finn
Director: James Lapine
Designers: Josh Prince (Choreography), Donyale Werle (Set), Clint Ramos (Costume), Mark Barton (Lighting), Scott Lehrer (Sound).
Cast: Jonathan Groff, Jenni Barber, Quentin Earl Darrington, Bradley Dean, Dan Fogler, Ana Gasteyer, Josh Lamon, Aaron Lazar, Alyse Alan Louis, Rema Webb.

Quentin Earl Darrington, Bradley Dean, Josh Lamon, Jonathan Groff,
Alyse Alan Louis, Ana Gasteyer, and Jenni Barber. Photo by Joan Marcus.

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