Sunday, February 04, 2018

A New Brain (Brooklyn)

While watching the Gallery Players' highly entertaining production of William Finn's odd but engaging musical, A New Brain, I found my own old brain full of questions. First, about A New Brain itself:

Jesse Manocherian, Justin Phillips
Photo: Alice Teeple

  • What makes a musical worth writing?
  • How does a writer decide what specifically to musicalize?
  • Is Finn's leaning toward silly rhymes a form of brilliance, audacity, or laziness?
  • How do you know when to end a musical?
  • What does a song need to offer in order to be worth keeping in a show?
  • What is Finn really about as a writer? 
These questions came up because A New Brain, for all of its many strengths, is a flabby sort of musical. The plot is simple: Gordon Schwinn, an irascible, often annoying musical writer, is derailed when a arteriovenous malformation in his brain leads to hallucinations and an operation that could cure him or kill him. Finn wrote much of the musical after his release from the hospital for his own very real arteriovenous malformation.

Some writers might have gone deep,heavy, and real in this writing, but Finn largely opts for a joyous celebration. His sheer pleasure at being alive is the through line of A New Brain, resulting in some wonderful songs. In fact, most of the songs are pretty wonderful. However, the overall musical is less so. The main problem, for me, is the lack of real stakes--there is never any doubt that Gordon is going to live and prosper--plus his angst is whiny rather than grand. As someone whose own angst tends to whiny rather than grand, I get it, but it leaves the piece a little weightless.

And that would be okay if A New Brain were more streamlined and less repetitious. This is a show that ends at least three times, with diminishing returns. And Gordon has at least one hallucination too many. It's still a good show and worth seeing, but I can't help thinking it could be better. (It's interesting that Finn is the writer of Elegies, a beautiful and heart-breaking song cycle about death and grief--there's no doubt that he can do deep, heavy, and real when he wants to.)

This particular production brought up its own set of questions:
  • Why are some performers so much easier to hear unmiked than others? I would think that all performers would want to excel at projection, but perhaps unmiked shows are too rare to bother.
  • Why are some performers so much more interesting than others? It's that mysterious charisma thing, of course, but it's always intriguing when you just can't take your eyes off a particular person in the chorus.
  • How do singers manage to stay on key when singing harmony with a performer so off-key that listening to him is physically painful?
  • And why would this person be cast in an important supporting role? (I know that the Gallery Players could have found someone better because there are better people in smaller roles and the chorus.)
Luckily, the Gallery Players can overcome one tone deaf apple, and, as with all of their musicals, this one is solid and smoothly directed (by Barrie Gelles*). The cast, led by Jesse Manocherian as an energetic, well-sung Gordon, has a lot of strong performers. The choreography (also by Barrie Gelles*) is charming; the set makes good use of the space; and the small band manages to evoke the emotion and presence of a larger orchestra.

The Gallery Players is a real treasure, and, by the way, it's easy to get to. Don't miss their musicals!

*In an earlier version, the wrong person was listed as director. My apologies.

Wendy Caster
(third row, press ticket)

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