William Finn's A New Brain follows composer Gordon Michael Schwinn (Roger Hanson) as he stumbles his way through a life-threatening disease. Naturally enough, because Schwinn is a songwriter, he sings a lot of tunes as he eases not so gently down this winding road of sickness. Funny thing is, everyone else sings, too, including his mother Mimi (Deborah Boily), his lover Roger Delli-Bovi (Jonathan McVay), and various other folks he meets up with.
The set-up sounds a bit preposterous, but given the impressive cast that director Jimmy F. Phillips has assembled at Little Room Downstairs Theater, this idea that brain disease can be fodder for musical theater turns out to be an easy pill to swallow. Certainly the cast sounds absolutely terrific, thanks to the strong voices (each and every actor can belt it) and to Kim Hupp's full, rich musical direction. Phillips's stage direction looks great, too, opening up a couple of quirky cosmic moments in the story. When Schwinn floats through an operation-induced coma, we get to see him lying in bed even as he sings and dances through a series of dreams and nightmares.
Still, no amount of vocal polish or earnest energy could make this inane musical worth a trip to the theater. At once melodramatic and juvenile, A New Brain is, at its heart, a goofy, self-indulgent story about writer's block. Schwinn is a composer of children's tunes for a television show whose lead character is a bicycle-riding frog named Mr. Bungee (Luther Chakurian). Turns out that Mr. Bungee is a drag to work for, a real reptile who doesn't much like Schwinn's music. But the composer is obsessed. He wants to write the perfect froggy song, even after he discovers he's sick. Try as he might, however, the words just won't come. He even sends his lover and mother away, the night before his dangerous operation, just so he can spend what may be his last few hours on earth creating a Mr. Bungee song. What he comes up with goes something like, "Yes, yes, yes is a very special word. Yes, I will strive. Yes is love. Yes is joy."
Meanwhile, back at his apartment, his heartbroken mother throws away all his books. For some utterly inexplicable reason, she decides that all the reading he's been doing has caused his brain disease. Of course, this, too, is an opportunity for a song, so mama sings as she tosses each novel in the trash.
Boyfriend Roger, who loves sailing ("better than sex, food or people," according to the song), also spends the night before the operation with a broken heart. He walks the streets and actually sings the best song in the entire show, a hauntingly dark piece about a bad "day in the universe." But one song does not a musical make.
Schwinn does eventually write the perfect frog song. Thankfully, that put an end to this misery. -- Lee Williams
A New Brain runs through Saturday, June 3, at The Little Room Downstairs Theater, 2326 Bissonnet, (713)522-5737. $15-$20.
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