What do we mean when we say A New Brain at Diversionary Theatre? We mean a show that’s mostly sung, a show about gay men and the woes connected to one man’s brain surgery, and the task of artistic creation. Also we mean a show that’s really, really good.
Described as a “musical adventure,” A New Brain has words and music by William Finn, of Falsettos fame. It’s full of mouthy, self-conscious, funny and sympathetic characters. Notably Schwinn, played by Tom Zohar, a gay Jewish songwriter unable to compose songs for his employer Mr. Bungee (Jon Lorenz), a dictatorial kiddie show host who dresses as a frog.
One day Schwinn collapses, face down in the restaurant ziti. This cerebral incident sends him to the hospital. Once there, he must deal with talk of scary operations and his memories. Oh yes, and the demands of needy Bungee.
The music is syncopated and the words articulate as Schwinn’s mother (Sandy Campbell) rushes to join him. She has amusing, self-dramatizing numbers that bring Sondheim to mind. His gentile lover (Anthony Methvin), while more becalmed, trumps this by singing the show’s best known number, “Sailing.” Hugely effective it is, too.
A New Brain is autobiographical. “Schwinn” rhymes with Finn, and William Finn was hospitalized with trauma to his brain stem. But Finn and co-librettist James Lapine also write about the travails of artistic creation — a familiar theme after Lapine’s work co-creating Sunday in the Park with George.
Schwinn is angry and unable to create at the show’s start. Having faced both mortality and the provocations of his employer, in the end he can produce songs, happy songs even, which both he and the tyrant of kiddie-land can believe in.
This is a sharp show: sharply written, produced, and performed. Director Kim Strassberger, who has directed Lapine material locally, clearly knows what she’s doing.
The precision and clarity of the vocal ensemble, guided by musical director Janie Prim, is admirable. The same can be said about Curtis Mueller’s lighting and Ron Logan’s scenic design. There’s memorable choreography by Michael Mizerany, too, that reflects the hand of the original designer-choreographer, Graciele Daniele, as we watch a tango by two parallel couples, mid-argument, or a phalanx of performers with walkers simulating a horse-race.
The whole cast is strong, though Zohar and Campbell are the standouts. Zohar is able to handle both the role’s comedy and the music’s lyric intensity. Campbell has a gratifying authority and sure sense of character. But then Zohar and Methvin achieve sweet, tenor-on-tenor tonalities in their scenes together. Lorenz is funny and provoking in all the right baritone ways. Tanika Bapitste is compelling as the homeless lady who, in many ways, becomes the conscience of the piece. Megan Carmitchell, as Schwinn’s agent, doesn’t have much of a role, but her clarity and musicality are things of beauty.
In an interview, Finn said New Brain is, above all, a show about gratitude and resurrection. What we see at Diversionary is all of that, amusingly and movingly so. And for this we should all be grateful.