Musical Theatre Guild continued its finest season in years with Monday evening’s one-night-only concert staged reading of William Finn’s A New Brain, so brilliantly directed (by Todd Nielsen) and performed with such polish and panache that it came close to meriting the words “fully staged,” quite an achievement considering that the entire shebang was put together with a mere twenty-five hours of rehearsal.

 Based on Finn’s own experience undergoing brain surgery for a life-threatening arteriovenous malformation, much of this autobiographical musical takes place in its 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, A New Brain features almost as many laughs as tears. Take for instance Gordon’s “Yes,” which includes the following gem of a lyric (ostensibly written 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!’” (Imagine the uproar this song would cause on Sesame Street!)

In addition to laughter and tears, A New Brain also features one of the most gay-positive depictions of a same-gender relationship ever presented on stage, one that is treated incidentally, exactly at it would be were Gordon Schwinn married to a woman.

At lights up, we find Gordon (Kevin McMahon) busy at work composing a new song for obnoxious children’s TV host Mr. Bungee (Joshua Finkel) when he decides to take a break for lunch with his agent Rhoda (Eydie Alyson), running into a homeless woman (Jill Marie Burke) on the way. Suddenly, Gordon clutches his head, collapses, and is rushed to the hospital, where he learns that his chances of surviving an operation are far from good.  Still, this is his only option, and fearing dying before his best songs have been written, Gordon agrees to the surgery. Gordon’s partner Roger (Stuart Ambrose) is away for the day sailing, but he soon arrives at Gordon’s bedside, as does Gordon’s loving mother (Eileen Barnett). Cared for by an attentive doctor (David Holmes), a bitchy female nurse (Melissa Fahn), a kind-hearted though weight-obsessed male nurse (Michael A. Shepperd), and a protestant minister (Erik McEwen) Gordon undergoes the operation and while comatose, has Felliniesque dreams of the people in his life, including the homeless woman.

 Not only was last night’s all-Actors Equity MTG-member cast absolutely weak-link-free, when all were 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 were truly breathtaking, and as deeply moving as they get.

Solos proved equally memorable, with Shepperd earning whoops and cheers with his rendition of svelteness-challenged nurse Richard’s lament “Eating Myself Up Alive,” a dynamic Burke revealing some of the most powerful pipes in town in “Change,” and the divine Barnett bringing down the house with both an emotional “Music Still Plays On” and Mimi Schwinn’s comedic rant “Throw It Out.”

Neilsen’s imaginative gifts were displayed in A New Brain’s numerous production numbers, song-and-movement sequences performed with precision and pizzazz by some of the quickest studies in town.

 Still, it’s Gordon’s relationships with the characters surrounding him that give A New Brain its heart and its soul, most centrally his relationship with Roger. McMahon and Ambrose brought the couple’s committed, supportive relationship to very real life, displaying the kind of onstage chemistry that makes an audience believe, never more so than when duetting “Just Go,” a love song that may have left a few dry eyes in the house, but they weren’t mine.

It’s been four years since McMahon starred in MTG’s Out Of This World, far too long between appearances, but the triple threat has been busy gallivanting across the country with the First National Tour of Wicked. The MTG treasure, whose own brain surgery five years ago made him an inspired choice to bring Gordon to life, not only invested Finn’s fictional counterpart with abundant “Heart And Music,” he did so without ever seeming to glance at the script-in-hand mandated by Actors Equity. Truly memorable work!

 McMahon and the aforementioned Shepperd, Burke, and Barnett were not the only MTG gems to sparkle last night. Finkel’s amusingly quirky Mr. Bungee, Alyson’s irresistible Rhoda, and Fahn’s deliciously bossy waitress and gleefully Grinchlike nurse all shone as did Holmes’ doctor and McEwan’s pastor. Finally, there’s not a taller, handsomer, more vocally gifted musical theater leading man than Ambrose, making his Roger a Prince Charming any Gordon or Gordona would undergo brain surgery for just to see him smiling back once the anesthesia had worn off.

Musical director extraordinaire Gerald Sternbach conducted the production’s couldn’t-be-better onstage six-piece orchestra, featuring himself on piano, Brent Crayon on synthesizer, Hayan Charlston on reeds, John Krovoza on cello, Paul Klintworth on French horn, and Joel Alpers on percussion, performing Michael Starobin’s orchestrations from the original New York production.

 A. Jeffrey Schoenberg and AJS Costumes designed picture perfect garb for each character. A minimal set design (mostly benches, an upright piano, a hospital bed and assorted paraphernalia, and some imaginatively used sheer white curtains) and accompanying lighting worked together to situate characters in places both real and imagined. Jeffrey Christopher Todd was production coordinator, Art Brickman production stage manager, Courteney Geraldez and Tara Sitser assistant stage managers, and Jessica Olson assistant costume designer.

Based on Monday’s performance, A New Brain is yet another MTG gem deserving of a fully staged Los Angeles production, whether intimate or on a larger scale. Since heaven only knows when that will happen, those in attendance at the Alex can count themselves doubly blessed.

–Steven Stanley
April 16, 2012

The Alex Theatre, Glendale
Photos: Daniel G. Lam

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