- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 17, 2001

Cast members of "A New Brain" are doing a musical about a tumor and they are having the time of their lives. "It is so much fun," says Serge Seiden, who is directing the show for Studio Theatre. "I know that sounds weird, but 'A New Brain' is a wild, goofy ride."

The William Finn musical is semiautobiographical, based on Mr. Finn's brush with a brain tumor in the 1990s. It revolves around the neurotic songwriter Gordon Schwinn, who feels he is squandering his talent in penning ditties for a children's television show starring a giant bullfrog named Mr. Bungee. He has writer's block, a sinking relationship with his lover and an overbearing mother. He thinks life cannot get any worse until he collapses and finds himself in the hospital.

Before and after brain surgery (and a brief coma), Gordon is forced to examine his attitude. Through a series of fantastical sequences, his imagination and memories surge to life. He writes the songs he was always meant to write, with the help of the hospital workers; a homeless woman; his best friend, Rhoda; his mother; and his lover, Roger.

Studio has a history with Mr. Finn's work, having done "Falsettoland" in 1991-92 and "March of the Falsettos" in 1984-85, which each won Helen Hayes awards. These productions, incidentally, are the only two musicals Artistic Director Joy Zinoman has directed in her career.

"Bill Finn's work is universally loved, and we have a long history with him," she says. "He's a lunatic. I adore him. I hadn't seen him in 12 years, and he said, 'Hi, Joy. I saw your college roommate on the street today,' as if no time had passed."

He will be present tomorrow, for the production's opening night.

Given the national reputation of Signature Theatre in Arlington for staging exquisite productions of musicals, is Studio trying to steal a bit of Signature's thunder? "No. The theater has had a relationship with Bill since the '80s," Mrs. Zinoman says. "We've been following the show, and when the rights came up, we grabbed them."

Mr. Seiden says the Finn musical "is not really up Signature's alley."

"It suits this neighborhood 14th Street. The show is urban," he says. "And I don't think Signature has the interest in Bill Finn's work the way we do."

Mr. Seiden adds that Studio originally wanted to do "Hedwig and the Angry Inch" but that Signature was awarded the rights and will stage the gender-bending musical in 2002.

But Studio did get a Signature mainstay, actor Will Gartshore, who recently played the Baron in "Grand Hotel" and Homer Collins in Signature's production of "Floyd Collins."

Mr. Gartshore plays Roger. "I've never done a Bill Finn work before, and it is interesting, such a distinct style. No one else is so off the wall musically and lyrically," he says. "'A New Brain' is never obvious or cliched."

Initially, given Mr. Finn's penchant for quirky rhymes and rhythms, Mr. Gartshore wondered how he was ever going to get the songs to come out of his mouth. "The music is very New York City urban nervous energy," he says. "There are all of these jump-cuts, like a movie, or changing focus every couple minutes. And much of the action takes place in someone's head. But once you get it, get the characters, then it does make sense."

Mr. Gartshore says his role of Roger is more melodic and conventional than some of the other parts. "My ballads are straightforward, but then there are these odd little intervals and rhythms that come into play from time to time. The ballads have a wry sense of humor, bittersweet, not sickly sweet."

Another role that could have been generic is that of the Homeless Lady, performed by Andrea Frierson-Toney, who was the backup for the role of Rafiki in the Broadway musical, "The Lion King."

"It's a part that could be stereotypical, but it is much more complex," Miss Frierson-Toney says. "She is asking for change, not just money, but she's a prophet in the sense that she's wise and makes an impact on Roger and Gordon."

Mrs. Zinoman says she doesn't see the Homeless Lady as "cynical or burned out at all."

"She's hopeful and positive and expands the range of the play outside of the world of the self-involved New York artist," Mrs. Zinoman says.

Mr. Seiden agrees, noting that the Homeless Lady could be seen as a peripheral character, someone who strolls in and belts out a tune. But in "A New Brain," she has "dignity," he says

Miss Frierson-Toney did research on homeless people, and two things surprised her: the degree of mental illness on the streets and the yearning of the homeless to have some control over their lives. "I met one homeless woman who fasted one day a week, which really struck me. I just can't turn away from these people anymore," she says. "I see the Homeless Lady as someone who hears and sees things, and if she could just get rid of these demons and aliens, she feels she could make a contribution to society."

With this much attention to detail and devotion to the parts, Mr. Seiden believes he is blessed. "They are unbelievable performers, since this work demands great singers who can act and really dig deep into the characters," he says. "My job is to take what is essentially a song cycle and add structure without intruding."

"A New Brain" contains "incredibly difficult music, because it expands what we think of as Bill Finn's repertoire. It is more challenging and difficult music, ranging from incredibly tight harmonies Manhattan Transfer-type harmonies to music written for African-American voices.

"The most complicated and fun part of the 85-minute show is 'The Coma Sequence,' when Gordon is unconscious and the cast floats in and out of his mind. It's the composer's fever dream," Mr. Seiden says with a laugh.

"It reminds you of Alfred Hitchcock, the Wizard of Oz, Scrooge, but there is a message there, since it is Gordon's awakening, both physically and psychologically."

The whole show toys with reality and what is going on in Gordon's head, where "the coma scene unleashes these elements in their full fury," Mr. Gartshore says. "Everything, from relationships to conflicts, is so heightened and almost demented. But there are things that Gordon needs to resolve and his relationship with Roger is one of them."

Mrs. Zinoman calls the coma sequence "a dream ballet"

"The amazing thing about 'A New Brain' is how selective it is there is a tremendous modernity to it. It is the essence of this, the essence of that. Cut down to the bone," she says.

Brain trauma is not what one usually expects to see in musical theater, but Mr. Seiden says the themes of health and mortality have a tradition in the theater, as seen in "Wit," "Rent," "Trudy Blue" and "La Boheme."


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