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A New Brain

a Musical
by William Finn (songs, book) & James Lapine (book)

COMPANY : Aurora Theatre [WEBSITE]
VENUE : Discovery Point Studio [WEBSITE]
ID# 5090

SHOWING : June 23, 2017 - June 23, 2017



Penned after composer William Finn ("Falsettos") was hospitalized for a rare brain disorder, "A New Brain" examines the Tony winner’s near-death experience through the lens of fear, forgiveness and a tyrannical singing, dancing frog. The charmingly eccentric tale follows Gordo Schwinn, a creatively stifled, sarcastic songwriter stymied by a kids’ TV show project. When he suddenly collapses from a mysterious illness requiring emergency surgery, a hallucinatory journey unfolds as Schwinn struggles to create his greatest songs while still recovering. It’s a funny theatrical adventure about the healing power of art.

Rhoda Rose Alexander
Mimi Schwinn Caty Bergmark
Mr. Bungee Tad Cameron
Lisa the Homeless Lady Jimmica Collins
Richard Elliott Folds
Gordon Schwinn Daniel Hilton
The Minister Robert Lee Hindsman
Dr. Berensteiner Ashley Prince
Roger Delli-Bovi Hayden Rowe
Ensemble Abi Sneathen
Waitress/Nancy Laura Spears
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The Sorcerer Apprentices
by playgoer
Tuesday, June 27, 2017
"A New Brain" is William Finn’s semi-autobiographical musical about his encounter with a brain anomaly and surgery. To add "oomph" to the plot, we have Gordon, the main character, under schedule pressure to produce a song for a children’s show starring a human-sized frog. He’s stuck producing it before the brain problem, has hallucinations during it, and completes the song afterwards. His relations with his mother, lover, and medical staff fill out the story.

This is a through-sung musical, so there’s a LOT of singing in the 90-minute run time. There obviously also has to be a lot of musical accompaniment, and in this production, it’s provided by percussionist Brooks Payne and a rotating band made up of the multi-talented cast members. Talk about tour-de-force performances! There’s not a weak performance in the bunch.

Daniel Hilton (also the music director) plays Gordon Schwinn, our hero, with nerdy charisma. Rose Alexander plays friend Rhoda, while Caty Bergmark takes on Gordon’s mother, Mimi. Hayden Rowe portrays sailing-obsessed lover Roger. Both Mimi and Roger have meaty songs and excel in their dramatics. Tad Cameron invests Mr. Bungee, the frog character, with tons of energy and stirring vocals. Jimmica Collins has nearly equal energy as a homeless lady, while Ashley Prince plays Dr. Berensteiner (and the piano!) with sardonic virtuosity. Elliott Folds and Laura Spears both excel at comic audience interaction and also impress with their playing of brass instruments. Robert Lee Hindsman and Abi Sneathen make strong impressions in their small roles.

Director Patrick Schweigert has the unenviable task of blocking a show in the thrust space of Aurora’s black box theatre. The set, such as it is, consists of a wooden chest, percussion set, and music stands behind a black curtain that is slid aside at the top of the show to reveal the alcove. The centerpiece of the stage is a vaguely grand piano-shaped platform with an electronic piano behind it. Too many scenes place actors’ backs to one side of the audience or the other, as if the show were blocked assuming that the audience would be viewing only from the middle section. Sean Nguyen-Hilton’s enjoyable choreography does a much better job of using the thrust space to feature good sightlines to everyone in the audience. A lot of the hospital action takes place on the piano-shaped platform, with an array of paperback books acting as a pillow. Books scattered here and there decorate the set, which was designed by star Daniel Hilton and director Patrick Schweigert. Ben Rawson’s lighting and Nicole Clockel’s costumes add visual appeal, although Mimi’s black hat and dress are the opposite of the flattering styles the script calls for.

One strong scene has Mimi throwing books into the wooden chest, and a later scene has the homeless lady selling the books, as if they had been retrieved from the trash. Mr. Schweigert’s staging misses the opportunity to highlight the homeless lady pillaging the books from the chest, which would reinforce the plot. Otherwise, opportunities are not missed to point up the action the plot requires.

"A New Brain" features a difficult enough score to sing, let alone accompany. The cast, most of whom are members of the Aurora Apprentice Company, have thrown themselves into their roles and the music with open hearts and open vocal chords. They’ve brought the musical to sparkling life with verve and professionalism. Bright futures beckon for these young performers and for the director and choreographer who have honed their performances. [POST A COMMENT REGARDING THIS REVIEW]


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