Tell me a­gain why “A New Brain” nev­er made it to Broad­way?

People who have liked the Wil­liam Finn/James Lap­ine musi­cal — eith­er from its off-Broad­way Lin­coln Center pre­miere in 1998 or from the 2015 “En­cores!” re­vi­sion — have been ar­dent a­bout the sung-through one-act. They point to its clev­er­ly in­ven­tive score, its wit and lyr­i­cism, and the quirk­i­ness of its sto­ry.

While “Brain” has a cult fol­low­ing, its rep­u­ta­tion is based more on leg­end (or on hear­ing the two re­cord­ings of the show) than on peo­ple ac­tu­al­ly see­ing the rare­ly pro­duced show. It’s like a phan­tom — the Bigfoot of musi­cals.

Director Ben Mc­Gov­ern has teamed up with sensi­tive con­duc­tor Ani­ta Ruth and droll chor­e­og­ra­pher Hei­di Spesard-Noble to bring the show to ground in the Twin Cities. They find joy, hu­mor and spir­ited life in their throt­tling re­gion­al pre­miere that op­ened over the week­end at Art­ist­ry in Bloom­ing­ton.

Ruth leads a sup­ple nine-mem­ber or­ches­tra that de­liv­ers “Brain” in a re­lent­less, 100-min­ute swoop. The skilled play­ers back a well-blended cast that in­cludes consummate pro Jen Burleigh-Bentz of Broad­way’s “Mamma Mia!,” expert singer Brad­ley Green­wald and op­er­at­ic bar­i­tone Ro­dol­fo Ni­e­to.

To­gether, they breathe beau­ti­ful life into this odd duck.

Best known for his hits “Fal­set­tos” and “The 25th Annu­al Put­nam County Spell­ing Bee,” com­pos­er Finn based the show on his own life-and-death health scare. “Brain” or­bits young com­pos­er Gor­don Schwinn (Ri­ley Mc­Nutt), who’s hav­ing a quar­ter-life cri­sis. As he’s try­ing to craft a song called “Frogs Have So Much Spring” for a kids’ show, he develops a brain tu­mor.

Sur­ger­y fol­lows, at­tend­ed by his moth­er Mimi (Burleigh-Bentz), his friend Rho­da (Cait­lin Burns) and his boy­friend Roger (C. Ryan Shipley).

The cast also in­cludes Mr. Bun­gee (Green­wald), froggy star of a kids’ show; cool doc­tor Ja­far Berensteiner (Ni­e­to) and two nurses: Rich­ard, the Nice Nurse (Evan Ty­ler Wil­son) and Nan­cy D., the Thin Nurse (Sar­ah DeYong).

The knock on “Brain” has al­ways been that it’s chop­py and dis­joint­ed. There are over 30 songs in the show that was first de­vel­oped as a song cy­cle then a re­vue. The num­bers have ti­tles such as “Family His­to­ry,” “A Re­al­ly Lousy Day in the Universe” and “Ca­la­ma­ri,” de­liv­ered with rel­ish by DeYong as a wait­ress.

The show’s shaky dram­a­tur­gy and lack of co­he­sion are still evi­dent in Mc­Gov­ern’s pro­duc­tion, but are muted by the per­form­ers’ charm. Mc­Nutt is com­pe­tent, if not ter­ri­bly af­fect­ing, as pa­tient Gor­don. But those around him fill the room with cha­ris­ma and e­mo­tion, in­clud­ing smooth Shipley.

To­gether, they prove up to the task of show­ing why this show de­serves to be seen a­gain.

 

rpreston@startribune.com

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