Most people baby boomers or younger have a favorite children’s TV show they remember fondly. My suite includes Sesame Street (particularly Elmo’s World), Zoboomafoo, Out of the Box, PB&J Otter, and Arthur. (I didn’t make the transition to Nickelodeon until after making my home at PBS Kids and Disney Channel Jr.) For the hypothetical kids in A New Brain, now playing through November 9 at the Artistry, they have a television show hosted by Mr. Bungee, a talking, singing frog.
While the kids may love Mr. Bungee’s encouraging songs and his dapper outfit (thanks to resident costume designer Ed Gleeman), his songwriter, Gordon (played by Riley McNutt) certainly does not. His talent is being wasted on writing songs about spring and saying yes and all sorts of mindless optimistic drabble. When Gordon goes to have lunch with his friend Rhoda (Caitlin Burns), he begins hallucinating about the giant frog and ends up face down in his meal. The rest of the musical largely takes place in the hospital as he and his loved ones cope with his mortality. Luckily, resident scenic designer Rick Polenek keeps the stage from feeling too sterile with the smart use of a white background that flickers in colors of the rainbow, and for better or worse, the songwriting ranges from blase to too-high-strung-to-be-vulnerable at its most downtrodden.
A Dichotomy of Comparisons
The best songs of the musical are back to back, “Family History” and “And They’re Off”—although you have to give Richard, the nice nurse (Evan Tyler Wilson), props for his pipes on “Poor, Unsuccessful, and Fat.” The first one is full of laughs and the second repurposes the refrain throughout the song with some help from Heidi Spesard-Noble’s choreography, telling the story in a way I wish more of the songs did.
If you’ve ever seen the musical episode of Scrubs, A New Brain is that except up a few shots of espresso, down a few good song lyrics and jokes, but the same “I’m a musical!” feel, which isn’t a bad thing. Oh, and in place of Turk, JD, and the gang to help the sick, we have two nurses, a doctor, and somewhat inexplicably, a very present minister and a homeless woman in addition to friends and family.
The musical also reminded me of a memory play, thanks to the Guthrie’s Glass Menagerie. Tennessee Williams based much of the story on his own life, and for A New Brain, composer, lyricist, and co-writer William Finn (Falsettos) was inspired by his own experiences after suffering the same brain disorder as the protagonist. Whereas the Guthrie’s character exaggeration was most seen on Amanda Wingfield’s mile-a-minute character, James Lapine and Finn’s book (and Ben McGovern’s direction) did it to everyone. Plus, you know, the frustrated artist trope runs rampant in both works.
Bring on the Songs
Perhaps these vastly different comparisons to A New Brain hint to the show’s problem: Instead of being able to appreciate Mary Palazzolo’s powerhouse solo or the prince charming-esque voice of C. Ryan Shipley (Gordon’s boyfriend) with McNutt’s harmony above it, the audience has to work to justify the musical itself. At times, the songs feel caught in between Les Miserables‘ strung together words and traditional rhythm structures, miss the target on everyday dialogue, and sprint through the beginning to drag out the end.
But, and I can’t say this enough, the cast and orchestra (led by resident music director Anita Ruth) are spectacular. They make you want to like the show, and they perform it really, really well. I just wish that I could see the actors in their past roles instead: McNutt’s role in Artistry’s Les Mis as Marius, Shipley’s role as Don Lockwood in the Artistry’s Singing in the Rain, Jen Burleigh-Bentz’s role as Tanya on Broadway’s Mamma Mia! (With how well she sold “Throw It Out,” I bet she directs that energy to the perfect amount of sauciness in “Does Your Mother Know?”)
The premise of A New Brain promises what is often the golden trifecta in a theater production: wit, heart, and a bit of whimsy. Everything is executed as best as it can be, but it’s the original music, lyrics, and book that let the team down. A New Brain misses the mark in its writing—for me. I’m sure there are people who disagree. So if and when you see it, let us know your thoughts. It might just turn out that I’m the one who needs “a new brain.”