William Finn’s New Brain is an interesting adventure into the contemporary American musical. It’s a somewhat feverish collection of songs loosely centered around a thinly veiled autobiographical plot about a composer who is diagnosed with a brain tumor. Windfall Theatre closes its season with a production of the musical now through May 17.
Larry Birkett plays the composer—a guy named Gordon. Marilyn White plays his mother. Ben George plays a minister. Bob Hirschi plays a doctor. David Flores plays a nurse named Richard. Thomas Rosenthal plays a frog named Mr. Bungee. It’s quite enjoyable, even when one song doesn’t seem to flow very logically into the next. A song about panhandling can lead to a children’s song about the word “yes.” A song about genetics can lead to a song about a family at a horse race.
Though it is wildly uneven in places, New Brain has a strong enough thematic center to keep it from being a disjointed musical revue. This is a story about perseverance in a variety of different forms and that theme holds things together pretty well. Performed entirely without intermission, the show does drag in places, but it all fits together quite well. Finn’s personality keeps it from ever becoming entirely tiresome. The ingenuity in Finn’s songwriting is particularly interesting in songs specifically about the medical condition and they make for some of the best moments in the production. Songs like “Gordo’s Law of Genetics,” and “Craniotomy,” are staged with a degree of precision in Windfall’s intimate space at Village Church Arts.
Far from flawless, the production cascades through a few uncomfortable moments. With a few exceptions, the production doesn’t hold together really well during the bigger ensemble songs. The bigger numbers at the beginning and end of the show falter disharmoniously at times, but these are minor details amidst an otherwise satisfying night of musical theater. Birkett glides around quite gracefully in a wheelchair for much of the production. Bob Hirschi, Ben George and much of the rest of the cast have isolated moments of brilliantly precise comic timing. Kristen Pagenkopf convincingly delivers compassionate concern. David Flores lets loose and plays at least one song entertainingly over the top. A converted plastic dumpster is cleverly used to imply an MRI machine. “Virginity” is rhymed with “affinity.” It’s all very fun.