A demonic frog sings about people losing their virginity “to those with whom they have no affinity,” and yet, “A New Brain” explores regret in the face of death, the love shared by two men, and the timeless human struggle to find happiness and fulfillment. The semi-autobiographical show by composer-lyricist William Finn premiered in New York’s Lincoln Center Theater in 1998 and was immediately recognized for its energy, creativity and raw sensibility. Yale’s production is no different. Director Greg Edwards ’05 has assembled an ensemble of powerful voices and talented actors who gracefully navigate this challenging script and score with a wink and a smile.
Gordon Schwinn (Aaron Lambert ’06) is dying of a rare condition called arteriovenous mamalformation, but is actually suffering from the weight of regret and self-doubt. Surrounded by his mother and his lover, Roger (Brian Valencia ’05), Gordon must reconcile his fears of death with the haunting reality that his music is not yet finished. Every moment he spends at the keyboard is one less that he shares with his loved ones. Although his behavior is life-threatening, Gordon burns the midnight oil and passes precious moments creating a song for a children’s TV program. The song is a failure; but from his hospital bed, from the depths of an MRI, from his post-surgical coma, songs pour out of his imagination and his subconscious. They are strong, powerful, and full of life — everything that Gordon is not. But like his music, Gordon refuses to die, and with echoes of rebirth, the cast sings, “I feel so much spring within me.”
While Lambert anchored the show with his exceptional voice, the truly great moments of the show were those when the entire cast joined the orchestra to create a richness of sound and energy that is so often absent in small student productions. A nod to Jason Ray ’06, whose onstage presence and notable voice eclipsed my expectations for his small role, and to the sexy Danille Ryan ’06 for her softness and smile, both of which carried the performance through its darkest moments.
“A New Brain” is certainly not without faults, but they are easy to forgive. A minimal set does little justice to the show’s numerous settings and creative plot. Not much more can be said about the costumes. These are superficial trivialities, though, that do little to detract from the honest and thoughtful performances of the entire cast.
I would have liked to see the script go further into the issues it opens up. That being said, “A New Brain” nudges and pokes, demanding its audience to look beyond elusive bantering and into the show’s veiled metaphors for the realities of human existence.
“Pennies or nickels or dimes — we live in perilous times,” Mariana Preciado ’06 sings. “All I’m asking for is change.”
Get it? If not, a new brain is probably just what you need.
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