The University of Alabama Department of Theatre and Dance was clearly in its right mind when directing graduate student Jimmy Kontos picked “A New Brain” for his third year musical.
Performed in the Allen Bales Theatre in Rowand-Johnson Hall for two more nights, Saturday at 7:30 and Sunday at 2, with tickets at $10, this is a musical you won’t want to miss. I want to get that out of the way now because there are only two nights left. Seriously, you should watch it. And now I’ll talk about the show itself.
“A New Brain” is a semi-autobiographical musical by William Finn (music and lyrics, book co-written with James Lapine) about a young, gay Jewish composer named Gordon Michael Schwinn (Russell Stephens). Gordon is trying to write “The Spring Song” at the top of the show, a song meant to be for a children’s frog-centric television program he works for. The guy that runs the show is the “oceanic and Satanic” Mr. Bungee (Corey Rives). When Gordon’s composing is getting him nowhere, he goes to have lunch with his friend and agent Rhoda (Jessica May). On the way, he meets a homeless woman (Alyssa Grubbs). Rhoda and Gordon converse and order their food with the help of an overly excited Mr. Bungee fan, their waitress (Tara Lynn Steele). Then, during the conversation, Gordon starts hallucinating, his head aches, and he collapses into his food.
As the story progresses, Gordon meets Dr. Jafar Berensteiner (Christian Timothy), a minister (Drey Mitchell), the fat “nice” nurse Richard (Nick Rashad Burroughs) and the mean nurse Nancy D (Kelly Barberito). His mother Mimi (Andrea Love) and his boyfriend Roger Delli-Bovi (Adam Vanek) also meet him at the hospital. They and Rhoda stay with him through most of his ordeal as he discovers he has an arteriovenous malformation in his brain and must undergo a dangerous surgery to survive. During his time at the hospital, Gordon hallucinates and envisions what his friends and loved ones are going through, Mr. Bungee’s show and receives some guidance and suggestion from the characters he has met leading up to this frightening medical moment.
With a cast of only 11 people, all of whom sing in ensemble and do some rather impressive moving and dancing throughout the show, “A New Brain” is easily one of the best ensemble pieces I’ve seen at UA. There have been over the years many fabulous shows, but this one had something special. First, there was no intermission, so the journey and the suspension of disbelief were never broken. Second, most of the musical was, in fact, music, much like the style of my favorite musical “Les Miserables.” There was some small amount of talk, but the music and singing were pretty much constant throughout the show. With wonderfully comic characters like Burroughs’ sassy and loving it Richard and Rives’ strangely happy and somehow also frightening Mr. Bungee, the show has some rather spectacularly funny parts. It also delivers some emotional whoppers, particularly through Stephens’ Gordon as he struggles with the idea that he might die, Love’s Mimi – who has a passionate song wherein she throws he son’s books away, looking for something to blame for his brain’s condition, and another song when it’s suggested he goes into a coma where she sings about his death and her love for him – and Vanek’s Roger, who co-delivers perhaps the most powerful song when he has an impromptu “therapy” session with the homeless woman.
Musically, the voices blend very well, and Vanek and Stephens share some rather beautiful duets that meld beautifully. The dancing was well choreographed, as was the entirety of the show. I moved from my original seat in the corner to a seat in the middle, but the way things were blocked, there weren’t any particularly terrible seats in the house. The show utilized the aisles and the space between the front row and the stage, as well as using some mild audience participation. It comes off almost like it were actually one of Mr. Bungee’s shows, and we were part of the in-house audience. In the end, despite struggling through despair and tragedy, fighting emotions and trying to find a safe middle ground, there is a sense of a new lease on life, a sense of true happiness and joy. The show is uplifting without every being ridiculous or overwrought, and the actors really show the pains and celebrations of the journey with a realness that carries the audience the entire time.
So. To reiterate: Go see this show. Saturday and Sunday, 7:30 and 2 respectively, $10. It’s more than worth it.