Review: ‘A New Brain’
There’s trouble in YOUR brain if you don’t enjoy ‘A New Brain’
If heart and music make a song, as playwright William Finn tells us in “A New Brain,” then The Actors’ Company scores well with its current production of the musical now playing at the Playhouse of the Village Players of Birmingham.
Because if there is one thing this production has plenty of, it’s heart – as well as 37 musical numbers that fly by in 90 minutes with no intermission!
Finn’s tale is semiautobiographical: Just one week after winning two Tony Awards for his first Broadway show, “Falsettos,” Finn was hospitalized and told he had an inoperable brain tumor. The diagnosis was wrong, of course, but while waiting to learn his fate, the playwright agonized over all of the tunes he planned to write – but hadn’t. So upon his return home, he sat at his piano and out poured eight of the songs that form the nucleus of “A New Brain.”
In “A New Brain,” Gordon Michael Schwinn writes songs for a children’s television show hosted by Mr. Bungee, his boss dressed as a giant frog. It’s frustrating for Gordon to compose songs for frogs; it prevents him from writing “the other stuff” that could leave his mark on Broadway.
But while having lunch with his best friend, Rhoda, Gordon collapses. When he awakens in a hospital, he gets the shock of his life: His brain disorder might be fatal.
Sound depressing? Sure, but it’s not.
Rather, “A New Brain” is a life-affirming tale that traces the personal growth of a talented, yet neurotic young man who sees no future for himself – and how he struggles to create one when faced with his own mortality.
It’s also one of the first mainstream productions – it premiered in 1998 – to feature two gay male lead characters – Gordon and his lover, Roger – in a positive, healthy and loving relationship without the specter of AIDS lurking in the background – and it’s a relationship that has the total support of their friends and family.
Finn crafted “A New Brain” somewhat like an opera: It’s told primarily through song, but with a variety of music styles; there’s only a smattering of dialogue. Although most of his tunes are snappy and engaging, a few occasionally linger a few minutes longer than they probably should. And you’ll groan at some of his rhymes.
But it’s the show’s overall format that is most unconventional: Finn continuously jumps from reality to flashback to hallucination to give us insight into Gordon’s psyche, fears and relationships.
Such a concept allows a director to explore his creative vision, and Michael Gravame’s staging is crisp and imaginative. One might wish, however, that some of Gordon’s hallucinations were more outrageously or outlandishly staged. (They are dreams, after all!)
The heart of Gravame’s show, however, is its 11-person cast.
Most notable is Jeff Drewno. As Gordon, he is called upon to play – and sing – a wide variety of emotions, and he does so impressively from start to finish.
Also a joy to watch is Brian Thibault, a recent graduate of Wayne State’s theater program. This is an up-and-coming young actor to watch out for: He can sing, dance and act – and do them all equally well!
Together, the two men beautifully portray a couple in love. And it is to their credit – and Gravame’s – that they don’t shy away from showing just how much in love they truly are!
Strong performances are also given by Lynette Yeager (the homeless lady), Kevin Edwards (Mr. Bungee), Nancy Potts (Mimi) and Laura Diane Dooley (Rhoda).
And although some of the other performers do not have the vocal skills exhibited by Drewno, Thibault and Dooley, they more than make up for it with energy, conviction and style!
“A New Brain” Staged Thursday through Saturday by The Actors’ Company at the Birmingham Village Players, 34660 Woodward Ave., Birmingham, through July 31. Tickets: $18. 248-644-2075. Also Aug. 26 – 29 as part of the TreeTown Performance Festival at Performance Network, 120 E. Huron, Ann Arbor. www.theactorsco.com.
The Bottom Line: Hey there, tadpoles – if a bicycle-riding frog, a tender gay love story and toe-tapping music can’t get you into a theater this summer, we don’t know what will!
Tidbits: News from Around Town
Playwright Ron Milner dies; Parker bats 1,000; ‘Corpus Christi’ in Lansing
ITEM: Detroit’s theater community was saddened to learn that one of its own, celebrated playwright Ron Milner, passed away Friday, July 9, of liver cancer. He was 66.
New York producer-director Woodie King, Jr. told the Detroit Free Press that Milner belongs in the top ranks of African-American dramatists, a prestigious group that includes August Wilson and Pulitzer Prize winner Suzan-Lori Parks.
Three of the playwright’s works had runs on Broadway, including “Don’t Get God Started,” “Checkmates” and “What the Wine Sellers Buy.” In 2000, Plowshares Theatre Company staged his play, “Jazz Set.”
Yet to be produced is a musical about Detroit’s pre-Motown era called “Looking for Ronnie Savoy.”
ITEM: For 29 years, actor Wayne David Parker has been appearing on Detroit area stages, but on July 25, Parker made history.
For that was when the much respected actor stepped upon the Purple Rose Theatre Company’s stage for his 1,000th performance.
Parker’s first role at the Chelsea theater was in the 1992 production of “The Tropical Pickle.” He is currently receiving rave notices for his work in “Duck Hunter Shoots Angel,” his sixteenth show at PRTC. He has appeared in more PRTC productions than any other actor.
“The man is a marvel,” says Jeff Daniels, PRTC’s executive director. “His passion for the craft, his unwavering professionalism and his lifelong love affair with the stage have been an inspiration to all of us. Someone should hand him his Lifetime Achievement Award right now.”
The energetic thespian is probably best known for his role of Jimmer in “Escanaba in da Moonlight,” a part he played initially at PRTC, and later at Lansing’s BoarsHead Theatre and a record-breaking 18-month run at Detroit’s Historic Gem Theatre.
Over the years he has also been seen on the stages of Detroit’s Attic Theatre, Meadow Brook Theatre and in schools all across the state with his one-man show, “Huck Finn.”
ITEM: Terrance McNally’s provocative script, “Corpus Christi,” seems to attract controversy wherever it gets staged. But that didn’t stop Chad Badgero and his non-profit community theater group, Peppermint Creek Theatre Company, from treating Lansing-area audiences to the play the New York Times calls, “a serious, even reverent retelling of the Christ story in a modern idiom.”
“I think it’s a tremendously captivating script,” says director Badgero, who is pursuing a Ph.D. in theater. “Jesus came to teach us to love and be kind to our fellow man. Period. He didn’t say to love only those who are exactly like us or are kind to us, but to everyone.”
“Corpus Christi” doesn’t claim that Jesus or any of his disciples were gay, Badgero says; it simply draws parallels to Jesus and current society.
“There are a lot of gay issues prevalent in our society right now – marriage, adoption, religion and acceptance – and this play has an extremely interesting and thoughtful take on those,” he says.
Peppermint Creek Theatre is staging “Corpus Christi” this week (July 28, 30 & 31) at Lansing’s Center for the Arts, 425 S. Grand Ave. Tickets are $5. For more information, call 517-927-3016.