Barrington Stage’s “A New Brain”: A New Rendition Of A Storied Classic

Barrington Stage’s newest production is a somewhat lighter reimagining of what has become a theatrical classic. A New Brain, by William Finn, who wrote the music and lyrics and co-wrote the book with James Lapine, comes to the stage with a heady pedigree and a basket filled with talent. Finn brings a plethora of experience to the stage, including Falsettos, Falsettoland, and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, which began life at Barrington Stage before transferring to Broadway, where it won two Tony awards.

Photo by Daniel Rader

Lapine, a frequent collaborator of Finn, brings an impressive list of credentials to the table, including a Pulitzer Prize and three Tony Awards. The show is being co-produced with Williamstown Theatre Festival, whose interim Artistic Director is Jenny Gersten. Gersten’s father, Bernie, was one of the original producers. You have to love a full-circle moment. 

The show is autobiographical in that, like the main character, Gordon Schwinn, Finn, too, suffered from arteriovenous malformation, a twisting of the arteries at the brain stem. Finn, like his protagonist, happens to be a composer, Jewish and gay. Schwinn, like Finn, was obsessed with the idea, when diagnosed, that perhaps his best songs would never be heard. 

Photo by Daniel Rader

The musical opens more like an operetta than a musical, with Gordon attempting to write a song about Spring for Mr. Bungee, a children’s TV character who plays a frog. Along the way, we meet a number of characters, including the aforementioned Mr. Bungee, a homeless woman, a somewhat nondescript Minister,  a few nurses in the hospital, Roger, Gordon’s partner, and Gordon’s Mother.

With two exceptions, the stage is filled with performers all making their Barrington Stage debuts. More impressive is the amount of talent packed onto the stage. 

Adam Chanler-Berat (Gordon) brings his own very impressive list of credentials from Broadway to TV to writing; Andy Grotelueschen (Mr. Bungee) also packs a long list of Broadway, Off-Broadway, film, and television credits with him. Demond Green (The Minister), Tally Sessions (The Doctor), Dorcas Leung (Gordon’s friend Rhoda), Justine Horihata Rappaport and Eliseo Roman (the nurses Richard and Nancy D), Salome B. Smith (the homeless woman), Darrell Purcell Jr. (Roger the boyfriend) and Mary Testa (Mother) round out the cast.

Photo by Daniel Rader

Testa has quite an extensive and recognizable Broadway career, as was evidenced by the enthusiastic round of applause from the audience that greeted her first stage entrance during the opening night performance.  She bursts onto the stage in a full diva moment, not unlike Ethel Merman or Patti LuPone with her Mother’s Gonna Make Things Fine. Her beautiful, heartbreaking “The Music Still Plays On” towards the show’s conclusion truly shows off the magnitude of her talent.

Salome Smith’s Homeless Woman has some outstanding moments with Change and On The Street. Purcell’s beautiful I’d Rather Be Sailing is another quintessentially perfect moment. Chanler-Berat has perfectly captured the neurotic, terrified Schwinn. Not knowing if the surgery the Doctor feels is his only hope will kill or cure him. We feel his sense of urgency, fear, and panic. The great counterpoint to all of the drama is Grotelueschen’s almost maniacal comedic performance. 

Photo by Daniel Rader

Director Joe Calarco does fine work keeping the story moving, giving Finn’s music and lyrics a certain lightness about them despite the stage being filled with strong, over-the-top characters. Paige Hathaway’s scenic design of a humongous light-up diagram of the brain never allows us to forget what the central point of the musical is about.

I must confess to not being familiar with this particular play of Finn’s, so I had no preconceived notions of what to expect. I came away with the idea that this is a man who certainly has if not issues with, then someone who feels the driving forces in his life are his sexuality, his Judaism, and his mother. 

A New Brian is just over an hour and thirty minutes with no intermission, and the time flies by. The show, on its own, is entertaining and enjoyable, but when you add the autobiographical bent, it just creates more richness into the production’s tapestry.

Photo by Daniel Rader

Once again, Barrington Stage has provided the audience with something out of the ordinary and a show that will leave you with much to discuss on the ride home. Common threads that feel apparent in this season’s stellar lineup of productions from BSC.

A New Brain on the Boyd-Quinson Stage through September 10. For more information or tickets, or the box office: 413-236-8888.

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