Sunday, June 28, 2015

Don't Play Dead

I saw the City Center Encores! Off Center production of A New Brain yesterday. A New Brain, by William Finn and James Lapine, seems on the face of it a fairly simple concept. Composer-lyricist Gordon Schwinn is stuck writing for a kids' show, a job which he hates, and then he suffers a... brain thing, and has to undergo high-risk surgery, causing him to reevaluate his life, and emerge with a new appreciation for singing frogs. (This is based on a real event in William Finn's life; apparently James Lapine would urge him in the hospital to take notes.)

The musical also concerns how this situation is handled by the other people in Gordon's life, including his mother, his boyfriend Roger, his colleague and friend Rhoda, and a homeless lady.

I suppose I should give a review. (Look at that! My first review!) This review I should preface by saying I absolutely loved the show and all of its elements. I will, however, be trying to give an honest critique of the show. Whatever complaints I may have, though, and whatever flaws I may point out, the fact remains that I absolutely loved it.

As a show, A New Brain is oddly paced and surreal. Its roots as a song cycle show through at every turn, where it flits from action songs to soliloquies to Greek-chorus-style interludes with no discrimination. The show is mostly sung-through with very little intervening dialogue between songs, usually only a few words if anything, and so with all that flitting around, the pacing is somewhat haphazard.

I did not see the original 1998 off-Broadway production. I would have been too young. So this was my first experience seeing the show, though I'd done my research and listened to the original cast album (a good thing too, as at times the sound balance was such that it was difficult to hear what was being sung). It seems to me that some efforts were made to fix some of the more major pacing issues, including cutting out the two latter songs of what I gather was a sort of coma dream sequence, opening with Brain Dead, sung by Gordon, and followed by Whenever I Dream (sung by Rhoda), and Eating Myself Up Alive (sung by Richard, the nice nurse). I understand that even Brain Dead is highly surreal, and including the latter two songs would have only served to drag the show out, but I do miss them from the cast album, if for no other reason than that they're catchy.

All that said, there was one major problem with the pacing that could not be solved without seriously cutting down the show. The problem is that the climax of the show occurs in the coma sequence, Brain Dead being the eleven-o-clock number. Don't Give In seems like an ideal finale, and by that point the audience is perfectly content to see Gordon wake up from his coma and go home. But no, we have to see how the experience has affected him, and so we have to sit through another fifteen minutes of epilogue after it feels like the show has already ended. And it's a good epilogue, and I think it's important to the show to see how the experience affects Gordon, but it does not dramatize well, because that's all character observation. The plot ends when Gordon wakes up at the end of Don't Give In. The only reasonable solution I can think of that might work would be to cut out everything after Don't Give In, except for the final Spring Song, just cutting to that, making it clear in the direction that some time has elapsed in the interim. That bookends the show, displaying Gordon's character development from his first attempt at the Spring Song which opens the show. It's not a perfect solution, but it would fatigue the audience less while still incorporating Gordon's character development.

The surreal elements of the show got a little out of hand, notably in the character of Mr. Bungee, the singing frog Gordon writes songs for. Despite James Lapine's wonderfully inventive staging, it is not always entirely clear when Mr. Bungee is actually in the room with Gordon, or when he's at some other physical location, or when his appearance on stage is simply a figment of Gordon's imagination. This most notably in Don't Give In, which opens with Mr. Bungee directly addressing the audience (his audience on the TV show), but then turning to Gordon. He may still be metaphysical at this point, but then Roger, Rhoda, and Mimi (Gordon's mother), join in, and they are very clearly actually in the room with Gordon. It doesn't detract from the song, which is a wonderful one, but it's just a little odd is all.

I suppose this brings us to the cast. In short, the show was absolutely perfectly cast. Really, they were all phenomenal. But if you want to read specifics, by all means go on.

Jonathan Groff, of course, starred as Gordon Schwinn, and completely did justice to his being Jonathan Groff. I can't think of any significant way he could have been better, but still, he managed almost to be upstage in almost every scene by his co-stars, all perfectly cast. Perhaps it's more because the other characters tend to be more dramatic. Dan Fogler as Mr. Bungee in particular hammed it up, to the point that it was sometimes difficult to understand what he was saying, as he sacrificed comprehensibility for emotion. Ana Gasteyer sold her scenes exceptionally well as Gordon Schwinn's slightly manic mother, and Bradley Dean played the eccentric doctor with all the appropriate panache. It would also seem he doubled as Gordon's father, a character who appears in the staging only -- though in this production, the lines Gordon quotes from his parents in And They're Off were sung by those characters themselves. Quentin Earl Darrington sang the part of the minister splendidly, and though his character is not an important one, his singing easily carried the numbers he was in. I was highly disappointed in Gordo's Law Of Genetics not to hear him go the octave down on the final "will always predominate."

On the line of octaves, this brings us to the nurses. Josh Lamon played the character of Richard, the nice nurse, with as much ham as you could ask for. I was disappointed, though, because his part seemed to be transposed up an octave from what's on the original cast album (on which the role is sung by Michael Mandell). I am not sure if the style in which he sings works nicely with the tenor octave, but I suppose that's a matter of personal preference.

Jenni Barber was a particular highlight as Nancy D, the thin nurse. She easily matched Kristin Chenoweth's performance on the original cast album. After seeing her performance, I became retroactively disappointed in the removal of the character of the waitress from the condensed first scene. Originally, the waitress and the thin nurse were both played by Kristin Chenoweth. Seeing Jenni Barber interpret the hyperactive waitress certainly would have been a delight. But even without the extra character of the waitress, Jenni Barber played a colorful Nancy D, and held a wonderful good cop/bad cop dynamic with Josh Lamon as Richard. (Or a nice nurse/thin nurse dynamic, to be more specific.)

Moving on, Rema Webb brought down the house as the homeless lady. (Who is apparently named Lisa?) I don't know what else to say. She was fantastic.

Before seeing the show, City Center sent out an email, I suppose to build hype, which included a link to this video:

Clips from the show, including selections from several of the major songs from the show, including Change (sung by the homeless lady), The Music Still Plays On (Mimi), And They're Off (Gordon and company), and, of course, Sailing, sung by Roger, played by Aaron Lazar. Roger not being a particularly eccentric role, like most of the cast are, it was clear that Aaron Lazar did, in fact, legitimately upstage Jonathan Groff. Or, would have if, one, they shared more scenes together, and, two, they weren't such good actors as to play off of each other, making it difficult for anyone to upstage anyone else. Lazar in particular shone vocally, perhaps better shown in the preview clips from Theatermania, featuring him singing a more climactic cut from Sailing:

I feel I've been really underselling Jonathan Groff here. He was, of course, also fantastic.

Gordon Schwinn is the main character of A New Brain. He's the one the audience is most supposed to sympathize with, and, perhaps as an aspiring musical theater composer myself (samples of my music are on the other tab of this blog), I feel a little obligated to try and identify with Gordon. On the flip side of the coin is Rhoda. Rhoda seems like she should be the least interesting character in the show. She's there to give Gordon someone to complain to in the first scene, and also to tell him that Mr. Bungee is rehearsing the Yes song tomorrow. She's a conduit for exposition, and also a false-lead love interest so there's some comic element with the reveal that Roger is Gordon's boyfriend. At least, I think that's the case. The panic in that scene eliminated any comic element, but the setup makes it seem like it was supposed to be at least a little funny.

The Theatermania set of preview clips (the second set) includes a brief excerpt from Don't Give In. The bit where Roger and Rhoda join in with three words each. "Don't play games" for Roger, and "Don't play dead" for Rhoda. And this brings us to the last member of the cast.

Alyse Alan Louis as Rhoda completely sold me on those three words in the preview clip. I think it was probably a combination of the costuming and staging, the delivery, and just finally seeing that line with visuals attached, but all of a sudden, I was extremely excited to see Rhoda in the full performance. After hearing just three words.

I am happy to say Ms. Louis did not disappoint. Right from scene one, she and Jonathan Groff engaged in a delightful musical banter, and she continued to play the part perfectly through the following sets of concern, panic, and all of the other dozen colors the character can have with a good actress. Indeed, this actress offered a wonderfully nuanced interpretation which struck a chord with me. No pun intended about chords in a musical about a composer.

(I stated above that I understand why the latter two songs of the coma dream sequence were cut, but I would love to have seen her singing Whenever I Dream. Although perhaps that song is a little out of character for Rhoda.)

With this performance, suddenly a character who seemed so bland on the cast album suddenly clicked with me. I'm not quite sure why, but with this performance, the character I found least interesting before I suddenly find the most interesting. Almost certainly to do with Alyse Alan Louis' remarkable performance. She has performed on Broadway as Sophie in Mama Mia! and I hope to see her name again on playbills in the future in more and more major roles.

I thought I might have something more meaningful to say than just a straight-up review, but the review ended up taking so long that I guess that'll be it. I don't expect A New Brain to become one of City Center's Broadway transfers, like the long-running Chicago, but perhaps after Next To Normal became a hit, audiences are more receptive to A New Brain's eccentricities, and it will hopefully see increased popularity in the future. The show certainly deserves it. It is not without flaws, but the wonderful songs by William Finn, tied together by James Lapine's intriguing book fill their purpose about as well as any show could be expected in dealing with this subject matter. This show is what William Finn wanted to convey, and since he's the one who actually went through it, who am I to argue?

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