THEATER REVIEW: "A New Brain"

Writer’s block is a bitch (just ask me), especially when you’re writing songs for a frog. It’s so stressful for wannabe theater songwriter Gordon Schwinn (Tom Zohar) that one night, at dinner with galpal Rhoda (Megan Carmitchel) he has a brain fart, falls headfirst into his dinner and winds up in the ER.

When he comes to, his greatest fear is that “I Have So Many Songs” and he may not be able to write them all. Will he need surgery? If so, what will happen to all those songs? Will he need a new brain?

William Finn’s autobiographical “A New Brain” – really a modern opera – plays through June 21 at Diversionary Theatre. Finn wrote the music and lyrics, which were arranged by Jason Robert Brown. The book is by Finn and James Lapine.

Gordon wakes up in the hospital, fearful and not a little ticked that boyfriend Roger (Anthony Methvin) isn’t even in town in his time of crisis: he’s out sailing, a pastime Gordon considers a waste of time.

After tests, the Doctor (Danny Campbell) tells him it’s not brain cancer, but he needs surgery for a congenital arteriovenous malformation. (This is the autobiographical part; Finn had just this experience).

The rest of the show jumps back and forth between reality and what takes place in Gordon’s hallucinatory brain as he recovers from the surgery. Like hallucinations, the plot thread isn’t always clear and neither are the connections (if any) between the songs. But Finn does offer several fun-to-hear ditties. “Gordo’s Law of Genetics” comes to mind: “the bad trait will always predominate.” Haven’t you always suspected that?

The best things about this show are the cast and Kim Strassburger’s fine direction, though Ron Logan’s lily-pad set and Michael Mizerany’s amusing choreography are not to be slighted either. And though this opera lacks the usual orchestra, Janie Prim’s excellent piano accompaniment makes it work.

Zohar has never sounded better, and he also carries the bulk of the story-telling chores with great diction and fine acting. Methvin is appealing and tender as Gordon’s lover.

A standout is Michael Parrott as Richard, “the nice nurse,” whose terrific voice and wondrous dance stylings light up the stage more than once.

But all cast members get their time in the sun, and are excellent: Tanika Baptiste, with a terrific voice and great presence, playing the Homeless Lady, Sandy Campbell as Gordon’s meddling mother Mimi; Katie Sapper as a mean nurse and a waitress; and Stewart Calhoun as The Minister.

There is one plot point that disturbs me. When Gordon ends up in the hospital, Mimi comes to clean and sings “Throw It Out” while tossing his prized books. According to press information given us, this represents letting go of the past. My past is catching up with me: I am a trained librarian and I really find this offensive.

“A New Brain” needs tightening and shortening – and a script that seems less meandering. But if you like modern music and aren’t put off by the lack of spoken dialogue, this cast makes it worth seeing.

The details

“A New Brain” plays through June 21, 2015 at Diversionary Theatre, 4545 Park Boulevard.

Show times are: Thursday at 7 pm; Friday and Saturday at 8 pm; Sunday at 2 pm

Tickets: (619) 220-0097 or HERE