Brilliant direction + imaginative choreography + ten terrific performances = more than enough reason for a road trip to San Diego to catch Diversionary Theatre’s pitch-perfect intimate staging of William Finn’s rarely revived A New Brain.
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. Sounds like a downer, right?
For anyone familiar with Finn’s Falsettos, it should come as no surprise that despite its serious subject matter, A New Brain features almost as many laughs as tears.
It also happens to depict its central, same-gender relationship as entirely incidental, exactly at it would be were Gordon Michael Schwinn married to a woman.
All this together makes A New Brain (music and lyrics by Finn, book by Finn and James Lapine) an ideal Spring Season closer for Diversionary, not only America’s 3rd-oldest LGBT theater, but one that consistently attracts the kind crossover audiences most LGBT theaters can only dream of.
At lights up, we find acerbic-tongued songwriter Gordon (Tom Zohar) busy at work composing a new ditty for tyrannical children’s TV host Mr. Bungee (Jon Lorenz) when he decides to take a break for lunch with his agent/best friend Rhoda (Megan Carmitchel).
Still, this is his only option, and fearing dying before his best songs have been written, Gordon agrees to the surgery.
Meanwhile, Gordon’s other half Roger Delli-Bovi (Anthony Methvin) is away for the day sailing, as is his wont, but he soon arrives at Gordon’s bedside, as does Gordon’s loving if overprotective mother Mimi (Sandy Campbell).
Cared for by a rather abrasive doctor (Danny Campbell), a kind-hearted, weight-obsessed male nurse (Michael Parrott), a cute-but-cranky female nurse (Katie Sapper) who looks just like the bossy waitress who served Gordon and Rhoda their lunch, and a rather befuddled protestant minister (Stewart W. Calhoun), Gordon undergoes the operation and while comatose, has Felliniesque dreams peopled by the folks in his life, including the Homeless Lady (Tanika Baptiste) he met on the way to lunch.
It is these fantastical dream sequences that allow director Kim Strassburger and choreographer Michael Mizerany get to strut their ingenious stuff, and strutworthily ingenious stuff it is.
Among the dynamic duo’s inspired staging choices are integrating clever, athletic “walker-ography” in “And They’re Off” to simulate horse-race action, having Gordon manipulate Rhoda by marionette strings in “Whenever I Dream,” and adding a waiter/waitress couple to “Brain Dead”’s sexy same-sex tango.
Projections not only provide a nautical backdrop to Roger’s “I’d Rather Be Sailing” but allow us to see Gordon from within his MRI tube as he imagines his friends and acquaintances aboard sailboats “Sitting Becalmed in the Lee of Cuttyhunk.”
Later, Gordon’s comatose face projected throughout a series of extended dream sequences (the abovementioned “Brain Dead” and “Whenever I Dream” plus “Eating Myself Up Alive” and Mimi’s torchy “Music Still Plays On”) reminds us of Gordon’s actual state as we watch him join in on some thrillingly staged production numbers.
It’s not just director Strassburger’s imagination and ingenuity that make her vision of A New Brain such a winner, but her understanding that what gives Brain its Heart are Gordon’s personal connections with the characters surrounding him, in particular his relationship with Lover Roger, Mom Mimi, and Best Chum Rhoda, and the performances Strassburger has elicited from her cast enrich these relationships to the max.
It helps enormously that Gordon and Roger are brought to life by real-life couple Zohar and Methvin, for whom attraction, friction, and devotion add up to a deeply moving, profoundly believable pair of lovers.
From his Diversionary debut with Yank! back in 2008 to his most recent DT star turn in 2011’s Harmony, Kansas, Zohar has been one of the shining lights of San Diego theater, and he shines brighter than ever as Gordon, a role he invests with a prickly charm and the most gorgeous tenor pipes in town.
Methvin too blends acting chops and topnotch vocals in equal measure, and the Zohar-Methvin duet of “Just Go” could coax tears from a stone.
The delightful duo of Sapper and Carmitchel make noteworthy Diversionary returns, the former after her edgy girl-next-door Ivy in last year’s bare: a pop opera, the latter following her enchanting turn as Pippin’s Catherine, and both are absolutely splendid again in performances that spotlight their versatility and verve.
Parrott is an absolute delight as svelteness-challenged nurse Richard, his uptempo lament “Eating Myself Up Alive” earning deserved cheers; Calhoun delights as The Minister, dueting an exquisite “Heart And Music” with Zohar; and Baptiste steals every scene she’s in as a soulful, sassy Homeless lady, her rendition of “Change” proving a veritable showstopper.
Lorenz’s quirky Mr. Bungee and Danny Campbell’s Dr. Jafar Berensteiner add their own spices to the spicy New Brain Mix.
Spiciest of all is Sandy Campbell’s Mimi, the San Diego treasure alternating dramatic gifts and comedic chops within seconds of each other and then back again. Add to that a deeply emotional “Music Still Plays On” and a “rant-tastic” “Throw It Out” (both showcasing Campbell’s smoky lower register) and it becomes abundantly clear why Diversionary afforded Campbell the production’s sole Equity guest contract.
Under Janie Prim’s musical direction, both solos and harmonies in “Heart And Music,” “Sitting Becalmed in the Lee of Cuttyhunk,” “Time And Music,” and the grand finale “I Feel So Much Spring” are in expert hands indeed.
Scenic designer Ron Logan makes inventive use of Diversionary’s sometimes problematic triangular stage by adding his own German expressionist angles, the better to enhance the surrealism of the musical’s dream sequences, which lighting designer Curtis Mueller bathes in blood red for maximum effect. Mueller’s use of saturated colors adds too to the production’s striking look and Logan’s great big lily pads are another inspired touch.
Beth Connelly’s costumes are a marvelously eclectic bunch, from trendy New York wear to hospital scrubs to homeless rags to Mr. Bungee’s kiddie-host garb to Mimi’s stunning “little black dress,” and sound designer Blair Nelson and prop designer Bonnie Durben add their own skilled contributions as well.
Matt M. Morrow is Diversionary Theatre executive artistic director and Matt Harding is general manager. Monica Perfetto is stage manager. Alyssa Swann is assistant stage manager. Garrett Bazzle is assistant costume designer.
As New Yorkers await their upcoming Encores! Off-Center staged concert of A New Brain with Jonathan Groff as Gordon, Angelinos have only to ease on down the road to San Diego to catch Diversionary’s fabulous (and fully-staged) revival.
If you love A New Brain even a bit as much as I do, this is one southbound day-trip you’ll be more than willing to make.
Diversionary Theatre, 4545 Park Boulevard, San Diego.
May 30, 2015
Photos: Rich Soublet II