It was a memorable evening sitting in the beautiful Neo-Moorish auditorium at the New York City Center along with an audience of around 2,000 predominately gay men and women to watch this 1997 Off-Broadway musical revival all abuzz with the news of the Supreme Court’s decision on marriage equality that day.
Memorable melodies, an uncomplicated plot and funny well-drawn characters make for the best kind of musical theatre and this is what’s on offer with A New Brain, playing for only four performances as part of the New York City Center’s Encores! Off Centre summer series.
The series presents three landmark Off-Broadway musicals each year re-staging them a few years on, or in most cases, decades on, usually using young and innovative artists from today’s pool of Broadway musical theatre talent. This year, it’s William Finn’s musical hit which opened at the Lincoln Center way back in May, 1997.
The star attraction for this one is Jonathan Groff known to most from his small screen fame with HBO’s The Normal Heart plus his roles in Looking and Glee. Groff sings and acts his way through the lead character of Gordon Michael Schwinn with charm and fabulous energy. He gives Schwinn that the doe-eyed, vulnerable and confused type character that he can play so well, but also delivers Schwinn’s sharp wit and I’m too-hard-on-myself attitude. The audience loved his work. Groff’s voice is easy on the ear and his focus and timing on stage was a delight to watch. He conveys all the panic, desperation, sadness and optimism that is required with the part of Schwinn and never was it over-cooked. Groff is a very impressive stage performer and he has relished the opportunity to do this re-staging of this musical, reported as being one of his favourites.
A New Brain is an autobiographical show that tells the story of the composer and lyricist William Finn and his experience with arteriovenous malformation, a condition that saw him go under the surgeon’s knife in 1992 for brain surgery. Staring death in the face with this brain condition, Finn came to realise what was important and what place relationships had in his life. Finn uses his protagonist Schwinn to tell his story which is steeped in truth with a little variation and embellishment here and there. It is a great tale of battling through our worst fear and coming out the other end to be grateful and glad for what we have.
Schwinn re-evaluates his relationship with himself and those around him. His boyfriend Roger (Aaron Lazar), his mother (Ana Gasteyer), his ex-girlfriend now best friend Rhoda (Alyse Alan Louis) all rally around him and he comes to realise what impact each has on his life. He has an antagonistic relationship with Mr Bungee (Dan Fogler) who is the TV character he must write songs for as part of his day job but also Mr Bungee represents Schwinn’s little voice whose dark fears and doubts bounce towards him at different intervals.
Also worth mentioning is the very funny Josh Lamon who played Richard the nice nurse who could really give a rigorous sponge bath and also Rema Webb for her portrayal as the homeless woman who played a role in Finn’s real life story and who he just had to include.
This little wonder of a show should get more of an airing. It is funny yet tender and never off-hand with the delicate nature of the subject matter.
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus