Something about this fall seems to have inspired a biographical impulse in producers. Hollywood is about to release biopics on boxer Muhammad Ali, poet/playwright Miguel Piñero, novelist Iris Murdoch, and schizophrenic mathematician John Forbes Nash Jr. Local stages, having already profiled Eleanor Roosevelt, Danny Kaye, Christopher Marlowe, and A.R. Gurney, will tackle Mae West next month.
But perhaps the oddestand in some ways, most ambitiousof the season’s bioprojects is the Studio Theatre’s A New Brain, a briskly fictionalized musical by William Finn about a composer who is reinvigorated creatively when he discovers he has a brain ailment. That is something that actually happened to Finn in the early ’90s, and if he hasn’t exactly written an autobiomusical, what’s smartest and most intriguing about the show is the sense it so often conveys of having been lived.
Finn, whose chamber musicals March of the Falsettos and Falsettoland won Helen Hayes Awards for Studio, was rushed to the hospital in 1992, just a week after winning a pair of Tony Awards for his first Broadway production: Falsettos (which combined the above two off-Broadway works with an earlier musical called In Trousers). Doctors diagnosed a congenital brain condition called arteriovenous malformation and ordered emergency surgery. Finn recoveredand promptly set to work channeling his experience into a musical comedy, creating an alter ego named Gordon Schwinn (Michael Rupert), whose career, alas, doesn’t include award-winning musicals.
Gordon writes songs for the froggy host of a TV show called Mr. Bungee’s Lily Pad, and when we meet the songwriter in the opening scene of A New Brain, he’s developed a bad case of writer’s block. But he develops something far worse in Scene 2, during a business lunch with his agent, Rhoda (Mary Jane Raleigh).
“Something,” says Gordon quietly, just before plunging facedown into his plate of ziti, “is very, very, very wrong.”
Caretakers then gather at his hospital bed while doctors run tests and realize he needs immediate surgery. Arriving with domineering flair is Gordon’s mother (Judy Simmons), who sounds a bit like Ethel Merman in the final verses of “Rose’s Turn” when she launches into the declarative ditty “Mother’s Gonna Make Things Fine.” Also on hand are a pair of nurses, one “thin” (Kristy Glass), the other “nice” (Scott Leonard Fortune). After a bit, Gordon’s lover, Roger (Will Gartshore), will also pop in, looking like a Ralph Lauren ad sprung to life and singing a soaring ballad about how he’d “rather be sailing.”
On his way to the hospital, Roger encounters a homeless woman (Andrea Frierson-Toney) who asks for change and then turns down the dollar bill he proffers. “I asked for change,” she says pointedly, pretty much summing up the author’s theme. Changes are, of course, coming, though Gordon doesn’t get with the program until the folks who care about him have had time to convince him through song.
Ruperta Broadway pro, who starred in the New York productions of the Falsetto showsis a past master at bringing the skittish vulnerablility in Finn’s protagonists to the fore. He possesses a sturdy voice and a witty way with a lyric, as well as a keen sense of how to make Gordonwho is a remarkably inconsiderate, grousing, work-obsessed guyappealing.
The author hasn’t surrounded his alter ego with secondary characters who have much weight, but Studio has cast all the subsidiary parts with folks perfectly capable of holding their own against Rupert. As the street-dwelling change-seeker, Frierson-Toney opts to mute the symbolism with which the author has saddled her by just plain singing the hell out of her numbers, and she has the pipes for the job. Simmons makes Gordon’s mom fiercely full-voiced and well-meaning. Gartshore has the sweetest tenor this side of the Opera House and proves that if Roger, as written, is just blandly solid, he can still be made appealing.
Frog-suited Buzz Mauro makes the scooter-riding, hippity-hopping Mr. Bungee appropriately annoying, as well as amusing. And the evening’s happiest surprise is the delicious, far-side-of-campy turn that Fortune delivers as the gay nurse who’s delighted to see his prize patient frolicking with his lover in the hospital shower.
Serge Seiden’s energetic staging keeps all of them racing around Daniel Conway’s multilevel setting, while Michael Giannitti’s lighting not only pulsates along with the songs but also projects brain fissures on the back wall. Jay Crowder’s four-piece pit band is a strong asset, keeping things buoyant even when the lyrics start to re-cover already covered groundwhich they do with a vengeance as the evening draws to a close. Still, Finn’s clever enough that most viewers will cut him some slack, especially when he’s exploring the ambivalence of a character who’s looked both failure and death in the face. If his story can support him for only about 60 of the evening’s 90 minutes, those are the breaks. The show still has energyand professional glossto spare. CP