Patrick’s Pearson breathtakingly conceived production of William Finn’s A New Brain is the most dazzling display of young talent you’re likely to see this year.


As in John Doyle’s reconceptions of Sweeney Todd and Company, the actors in Pearson’s cast also serve as the musicians. Unlike Doyle’s much discussed pair of London-to-New York revisals, however, this time the concept really works, and not just as a gimmick, but as something organic to the story.  With a cast made up of quadruple threats, concept, material, and talent come together with impressive results.


Finn’s autobiographical musical is based on the writer’s own experience with a life-threatening brain tumor, and much of it takes place in the hero’s mind as he lies comatose, surrounded by family, colleagues, and loved ones.

But rest assured.  Since Finn is also the creator of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, it should come as no surprise that despite its grim subject matter, there are almost as many laughs as tears.  A New Brain also features one of the most gay-positive depictions of a same-gender relationship ever seen on stage, so much so that anyone concerned about “preserving marriage” should see this eye-opener of a show.

At lights up, Gordon Schwinn (Ryan Wagner), is busy at work composing a new song for obnoxious children’s TV host Mr. Bungee (Jesse Bradley) when he decides to take a break for lunch with his agent Rhoda (Courtney Walton), running into a homeless woman (Kaitlyn Etter) on the way.  Suddenly, Gordon clutches his head, collapses, and is rushed to the hospital, where he learns that he has a brain tumor and fluid build-up in his brain.  Though his chances of surviving an operation are far from good, it is his only option, and Gordon, who fears dying before his best songs have been written, agrees to the surgery.  Gordon’s partner Roger (Jeffrey Aiken) is away for the day sailing, but he soon arrives at Gordon’s bedside, as does Gordon’s loving mother (Aimee Karlin).  Tended to by a handsome doctor (Gregg Hammer), a bitchy female nurse (Ashley Kane), a kind-hearted though weight-obsessed male nurse (Luke Jacobs), and a protestant minister (Andrew Roubal) Gordon undergoes the operation and while comatose, has Felliniesque dreams of the people in his life, including the homeless woman.

It is A New Brain’s surreal quality that makes Pearson’s concept of actors as musicians work so well.  Unlike the recent Sweeney Todd revival, which never seemed like an honest-to-goodness Sweeney Todd, this time the concept really works, and having seen Peason’s production, it’s hard to imagine A New Brain working as well when done “traditionally.”

At various times during the show, keyboardists include Wagner, Jacobs, Karlin, Hammer, and (most often) Roubal. Hammer is the most frequent percussionist, but Etter and Bradley also play the drums, among others, and Bradley proves himself a fine guitarist.  Kane plays clarinet in several numbers. Since characters burst into song (A New Brain is almost entirely sung through) and spontaneous dance (there’s a sensational tango number near the end), it’s hardly strange that they should also provide the accompaniment, especially since much of the action is happening in a comatose patient’s brain.

There’s not a weak link in the cast of ten, and when all are harmonizing, as in “Heart And Music,” “Sitting Becalmed in the Lee of Cuttyhunk,” “Time And Music,” and the grand finale “I Feel So Much Spring,” the results are breathtaking, and deeply moving. There’s also the very funny “Yes,” which features the following gem of a lyric (ostensibly for a children’s TV show): “When someone says, ‘Would you like to lose your virginity,’ someone with whom you have no affinity, say ‘No, no, no, no!’” Solos are particularly memorable.  Jacobs shines in the very funny overweight man’s lament “Eating Myself Up Alive,” Etter belts like a young Merman in “Change,” and Karlin sings an emotional “Music Still Plays On” to rival Penny Fuller’s original.  (It’s especially moving to see son Wagner at the keyboard accompanying mother Karlin in this number.) 

A word about the cast. All ten are Cal State Fullerton students (or recent grads), all but one from the Musical Theatre Department. This production originated last year at CSF, and made it onto OC Weekly theater critic Dave Barton’s list of Top 10 shows of 2007.  A savvy Barton invited director and cast to perform a return engagement at his Rude Guerilla Theatre in Santa Ana, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Don’t let the fact that the actors are all a decade (or two or three) younger than the characters they play turn you off.  That this originated as a “student production” is soon forgotten, and one can only be grateful to Barton for giving this brilliant A New Brain new life.

Some of Pearson’s best moments as director come in the production numbers. The 1950s influenced “Gordo’s Law of Genetics” features a “girl group” backup and the men adding their “bum bum bums” to the mix. “Sitting Becalmed in the Lee of Cuttyhunk” has the cast surrounding Gordon’s bed as if on a sail boat, with Etter as the figurehead at the bow.


Perhaps best of all is the red-lit “Brain Dead,” which features the entire cast, with Wagner and Aiken dancing the sexiest man-to-man tango I’ve ever seen. 

At the heart of A New Brain is Gordon’s relationship with Roger. Wagner and Aiken bring this deeply loving relationship to very real life, and their moments together ought to melt even the most homophobic hearts.  When they duet “Just Go,” there may have been dry eyes in the house, but they weren’t mine.


Wagner is handsome, sexy, and a terrific actor/singer whose assured performance anchors the production.  He is perfectly complemented by Aiken , who sings like an angel and shares great chemistry with Wagner.  Bradley has mucho fun being a mean-hearted children’s TV host, and is a fantastic guitarist. Etter is the best belter of the bunch, and Kane is not only a wonderfully bitchy nurse but has a sensational high soprano belt to boot. Jacobs steals every scene he’s in, and Hammer is not only one heck of a percussionist but looks great in a wifebeater.  Walton does fine/funny work as Rhoda and Roubal is a gifted pianist with a soaring tenor voice. Completing the ensemble is Karlin, the sole Acting major, but with a voice at the level of her acting chops sure to guarantee her many musical theater roles.

There is no set design per se. Just a keyboard, a hospital bed, and a set of drums. It doesn’t matter.

Gregory Nabours and Pearson were co-musical directors, E.J. Brown did the lighting, and David Hernandez assistant directed.  All deserve major kudos, with a standing ovation to creator/director Pearson.  

Patrick Pearson created this actor-as-musician A New Brain out of necessity. Given a grand total of $100 to mount the original CSF production, it was either be without an accompanist throughout most of the rehearsal period, or have his cast perform the accompaniment.  Necessity has indeed proved the mother of invention here, with truly spectacular results.

Even with gas prices what they are, it behooves every lover of musical theater to make the drive to Santa Ana to experience this must-see production.  The future of musical theater is in good hands indeed.

Rude Guerilla Theatre, 202 North Broadway Santa Ana, CA. Through July 6.  Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00, Sundays at 2:30.  Tickets: 714 547 4688

–Steven Stanley 
May 31, 2008

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