The two musicals typically regarded as composer William Finn's best—and most autobiographical—work feature an intriguing alchemy: bright humor with a dark underbelly of despair. One is the legendary Falsettos, a touching examination of modern gay life that riveted audiences in the 1990s. The second is A New Brain, now being revived by the Astoria Performing Arts Center in a vibrant, impassioned production. In one emphatic breath, Finn captures the fantastical experience of a neurotic composer hovering on the brink of death. The intermissionless show follows Gordon Schwinn from the first sensations of a headache, to the hospital, through brain surgery, and into a coma. Within these bounds (and with eccentric characters to spare), Finn manages to capture a captivating slice of humanity and, for the most part, so do director Brian Swasey and his excellent cast.
Weary from composing silly melodies for a kids' TV show featuring Mr. Bungee, a man dressed as a frog, Gordon complains of artistic malaise over lunch with his manager, Rhoda. She encourages him to keep plugging along ("First kids' TV, then next the Broadway shows!" she enthuses), but Gordon suddenly slumps over the table. Rushed to the ER, he begins his journey back to life—and some sense of optimism.
On hand to offer advice, consolation, and sympathy are a kooky group of people who exist in both his real and imaginary life: Rhoda, forever glued to her BlackBerry; his overbearing mother, Mimi; his sailing-addict boyfriend, Roger; a tart and "thin" nurse, Nancy D.; her foil, the "nice" and "fat" nurse, Richard; a doctor; a minister; and a homeless woman with a knack for clairvoyance.
For the most part, the show, with a book co-written by James Lapine, shifts seamlessly from one song to the next. In fact, A New Brain fairly bursts with songs, the majority of them cleverly composed and craftily constructed. Finn excels at finding humor in the lyrical—"Sex is good, but I'd rather be sailing," confides Roger as he sings gorgeously. Finn also rips away surfaces to expose the honest desperation underneath: "I don't ask for hugs—just want money to buy more drugs!" bellows the homeless woman.
Of course, this is all filtered through Gordon's subconscious (and unconscious) imagination, so we're dependent on the central character to usher us through his adventure. As the neurotic Gordon, Joe Pace finds just the right mix of anxiety, narcissism, and self-deprecation—he's instantly likable, sings gloriously, and he watches with charming glee as his imagination spins the characters into increasingly absurd—and revelatory—arrangements. In Pace's controlled and moving performance, we watch a confused man define and redefine himself against his life's despair.
And he doesn't just react to the other characters' histrionics; in the confessional "And They're Off," Gordon recalls how his father gambled away massive sums of money betting on horses. With a wry and wistful look, Gordon remembers not only the pain but also the undeniable excitement of those family days at the races.
Swasey places the ensemble members (who sing backup) onstage with Gordon during this song, and they clutch metal walkers, which they use as percussive instrumentation. It's clever staging, but it distracts from Gordon's story and also underscores one of the production's weaknesses: as the music broadens into Finn's lush harmonies, the cast's powerful vocals often obscure the lyrics at the center of the song. This overexuberance often launches the music to deafening levels, and the group choruses—while undeniably exciting—would benefit from more tightly focused music direction. The cast was also occasionally out of sync (in pitch, in volume, and in rhythm) with the offstage orchestra.
Balance issues aside, the top-tier cast puts forth compelling performances. Justin Birdsong is irresistible as Richard, the nurse who complains of being "Poor, Unsuccessful, and Fat." Fresh out of college, Birdsong is a superb vocalist with a deft and original comedic touch that many actors work years to achieve.
Stephanie Wilberding offers a sharp comic reading of the harried Rhoda, and she winningly flits through the tongue twister "Whenever I Dream," in which she becomes the dummy to Gordon's ventriloquist. Lois S. Hart throws away much of Mimi's caustic comedy, but she delivers an enigmatic and unforgettable rendition of the haunting ballad "The Music Still Plays On," in which Gordon imagines how his mother will react to his death.
Designer Michael P. Kramer has constructed a simple and evocative set—rectangular boxes glow along the back wall (and later illuminate X-rays), and Swasey smoothly incorporates the simple hospital fixtures (sliding curtains, window blinds) into his inventive direction.
Finn certainly has a light touch, but he's painting with deep, rich colors, and the APAC production captures both the humor and depth of A New Brain: a small, everyday opera that just happens to surge into questions of eternity every now and then.