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.