Saturday, November 24, 2001

What a difference a play makes. In the light of recent events, it seems rather extravagant to sit in a theater and watch plays. There’s a war on, after all. Shouldn’t we be rolling bandages or serving coffee to soldiers or planning our victory gardens?
Then came “A New Brain,” Studio Theatre’s ebullient production of William Finn’s cerebral, stirring musical about getting a second chance at life. Sitting in the audience, taking in this show, is exactly where we Washingtonians should be. It’s a show about living, about feeling grateful, about starting over hopefully without the nit-picky glop that mucks up our dealings with our fellow man. Can you think of anything better, post-September 11?
“A New Brain” has an exhilarating message that Mr. Finn could not have figured when he wrote the musical in 1997. But here it is, more timely and fresh than ever. The Studio’s production wisely underplays the profundity of the message, with director Serge Seiden delivering a show that is fun, dizzying, and a bit impudent and naughty.
The show is semiautobiographical, stemming from Mr. Finn’s brush with mortality in the early 1990s. It centers on Gordon Schwinn (Michael Rupert), an engagingly neurotic composer for a kiddie show featuring Mr. Bungee (Buzz Mauro), a frog in a plaid suit that reminds you of Pee-Wee Herman’s.
Gordon believes he is squandering his talent “writing songs fer frogs” and longs to pen the music he knows is inside him. Meanwhile, there is kvetching with his friend Rhoda (Mary Jayne Raleigh), tormenting his hunky goyim boyfriend Roger (Will Gartshore) and sparring with his mother (Judy Simmons). In midrant, Gordon collapses and is rushed to the hospital. It turns out he has a congenital brain defect that has to be corrected by serious surgery.
Gordon undergoes the surgery and almost doesn’t make it. Throughout his ordeal, he does write the songs he is meant to write, with the help of his mother, friend, lover, the hospital staff (Sean Leonard Fortune and Kristy Glass), Mr. Bungee, a Minister (Eric Lee Johnson) and a Homeless Lady (Andrea Frierson-Toney).
Not the usual moon-spoon-June scenario we expect in musicals. But the half-fantasy, half-reality structure of “A New Brain” offers plenty of opportunities for various song stylings and flights of fancy.
The song cycle includes doo-wop harmonies (“Gordo’s Law of Genetics,” “And They’re Off,” “Heart and Music”), romantic ballads (“I’d Rather Be Sailing,” “Invitation to Sleep in My Arms”), torch songs (“The Music Still Plays On”), comic ditties (“Poor, Unsuccessful and Fat,” “Brain Dead” and “Eating Myself Up Alive”), and one truly indelible composition, “I Feel So Much Spring,” the show’s final number that leaves you with a bowling-ball-size lump in your throat.
It is a real grab bag of melodies and moods, but Mr. Finn’s consistent quirkiness and odd rhythms and rhymes somehow work you don’t know how precisely he pulls it off, just that he does. Not many people could get away with rhyming “go” with “schmoe,” or “Once I was thin/Now I eat like Rin-Tin-Tin,” but Mr. Finn manages to carry it off and make it sound completely natural. Mr. Seiden gracefully maintains the musical’s structure, organizing “A New Brain” around Gordon’s collapse and hospital stay. This allows ample time in a 90-minute musical, no less for both poignancy and nuttiness.
Mr. Seiden really lets loose on the “Coma Sequence,” where the cast acts out Gordon’s various whirling thoughts. The coma sequence alone includes tango dancing, a cast clad in identical hospital gowns and head bandages, Mr. Bungee gliding about on a scooter, a ventriloquism bit, and some rather bizarre moments right out of Alfred Hitchcock.
The dizzying beat changes do not throw the marvelous cast, led by Mr. Rupert as Gordon. He portrays him as a man in mourning for his life, until circumstances force him to extract his head from his nether parts. Mr. Rupert makes Gordon the kind of guy who could drive you crazy, but charmingly so. Mr. Gartshore is appropriately swoony as the lover Roger, executing the ballads with matinee-idol emotion. As his opposite in appearance, Mr. Fortune drips with attitude and drollery as Richard, the male nurse. His renditions of “Eating Myself Up Alive” and “Poor Unsuccessful and Fat” brought down the house, as he basked in self-deprecating splendor.
Equally spectacular is Miss Frierson-Toney, who brings to the part of the Homeless Lady a wonderful dignity and vulnerability not to mention a powerhouse voice on the songs “Change” and “A Really Lousy Day in the Universe.”
Mr. Mauro is also notable as Mr. Bungee, managing to hop up steps like a frog and not make the character wholly evil but more a chartreuse-tinged arbiter of Gordon’s conscience; as is Miss Simmons as the forceful mother, as determined as Mama Rose but much more fiercely loving.
Studio rarely stages musicals, but you would never know it by the harmonious in all aspects “A New Brain.”

WHAT: “A New Brain”
WHEN: Tuesdays through Thursdays, through Dec. 23
WHERE: Studio Theatre, 1333 P St. NW, Washington
TICKETS: $19.50-$43.50
PHONE: 202/332-3300

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