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A NEW BRAIN - Finally, a production worthy of the work

Director Joe Calarco has done it again at Barrington Stage Company (BSC) in Pittsfield with a wonderful, transporting revival of the musical, “A New Brain’; he had distinguished previous BSC seasons with exceptional productions ranging from “Into The Woods” to “Waiting for Godot”. The New York Times characterized the original 1998 Lincoln Center production of “A New Brain” as having a “spliced-together feeling” and a show that might have worked better as a revue. In Calarco’s hands, “A New Brain” emerges as a seamless musical narrative. Key to Calarco's success is the extraordinary ensemble he has cast, more consistently talented than most seen in even the most highly regarded Broadway productions.

The show, a co-production of BSC and Williamstown Theatre Festival, is one of the major collaborations between writer James Lapine and composer and lyricist William Finn, the others being “Falsettos” and “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee”, which was developed at BSC. “A New Brain” sprang from a series of songs that Finn composed after surviving a near-death cerebral malformation. In the show, a neurotic, Jewish composer Gordon Schwinn (winningly played by Adam Chanler-Berat of the original “Next to Normal”) is stuck in a job composing for a children’s tv program hosted by a frog called Mr. Bungee (a hilariously sardonic Andy Grotelueschen last seen on Broadway in “Tootsie”). Stricken at work, he’s hospitalized, and facing life-or-death brain surgery, he is visited by his lover, Roger, a “Goyem” obsessed with ocean-sailing (a part particularly well-sung by Darrell Purcell, Jr.), his domineering but unstable mother, Mimi (the simply wonderful Mary Testa), and his best friend and agent, Rhoda (Dorcas Leung).

Completing the ensemble is Gordon's Doctor (Tally Sessions), Richard, a busybody comical nurse (Eliseo Roman), a rather nasty health aid Nancy (Justine Horihata RappaportJ) and the hospital Minister (Demond Green). Outside the hospital roams a homeless woman (the powerful Salome B. Smith - more about her later), coincidentally the part that Mary Testa played in the original production 25 years ago.

The entire book is sung-through in an integrated succession of 33 numbers (two reprised) linked together by unifying musical direction of Vadim Feichtner, clever stage movement and choreography by Chloe O. Davis . Finn’s score is wonderful, through and through. Among the stand-out songs are Testa’s rendition of “Mother’s Gonna Make Things Fine” and the tearjerker “”The Music Still Plays On”, Purcell’s duet with Chanler-Berat, “I’d Rather Be Sailing” and Grotelueschen's “Be Polite To Everyone”. They’re all knockout numbers, but Smith nearly steals the show with a rousing Gospel-inspired interpretation of “Change”. Smith got my attention in the Broadway revival of “1776” a few years ago. I couldn’t take my eyes off her here.

Scenic designer Paige Hathaway creates an impressive backdrop used in most of the scenes - a huge, stylized cross-section of a brain, illuminated in various color patterns by lighting designer Jason Lyons. (Hathaway also achieves some nifty prop tricks, like the transformation of a white hospital-room curtain into the mainsail of Roger’s sail boat). Costumes observe pop-culture iconography, lending this tale of salvation through art a story-book quality. All in all, a superb Berkshire production ready for its proper Broadway revival.


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