A New Brain
Music and Lyrics by William Finn
Book by James Lapine and William Finn
Directed by Tricia Lackey
Studio Theatre, Sheridan College, Oakville
November 27 to December 6, 2008
GORDON SCHWINN – Thomas Alderson
MR. BUNGEE – Alex Fiddes
MIMI Gordo’s Mother – Jacquelyn French
RHODA the Agent – Jennifer Shaw
ROGER the Boyfriend – David Cotton
RICHARD the nice nurse – Cody Lancaster
HOMELESS LADY – Paige Robson-Cramer
WAITRESS/NANCY the nurse – Tess Benger
THE DOCTOR – Jason Clarke
THE MINISTER – Daniel Greenberg
Live! On Stage!
Backgrounder by Mary Alderson
I am way too biased to write a review of A New Brain – I’ll simply say that the cast is brilliant. This talented group of 3rd year Sheridan students are all outstanding singers/actors/dancers. It’s a heart-warming show with comedic moments, a touching story, and good music. I’ve seen this production of “A New Brain” twice so far, and it’s fascinating. To fully appreciate it, you need to know the background
The first thing you need to know – it’s a true story!
The story and the music were written by William Finn, and the main character Gordon (Gordo) Schwinn is him (Finn = Schwinn: rhyming names!). My son Thomas Alderson plays the role of Gordo Schwinn.
Gordo is a song-writer who wants to write a great musical. In fact, writing a big Broadway musical has become more important to him than family and friends.
Unfortunately, he is stuck writing songs for a kiddie TV show about a giant frog named Mr. Bungee. So he goes off to talk to his agent/friend Rhoda – he wants to quit writing silly moralistic songs for Mr. Bungee.
At the restaurant where he’s meeting Rhoda, the waitress overhears them talking about Mr. Bungee’s TV show. Because this is New York, the waitress is, of course, an unemployed actress, so when she’s serving them, she’s actually auditioning for the Mr. Bungee show, which explains her over-the-top singing and dancing.
Gordo starts to hallucinate and then collapses. Throughout the show in his hallucinations and nightmares, he often sees Mr. Bungee, who is “aquatic and despotic”. When Bungee appears on stage, it is just in Gordo’s head.
Gordo is rushed to the hospital with his Mom and Rhoda. They are trying to contact Gordo’s boyfriend, Roger, but as usual he is out sailing. Roger appears in a ridiculous sailor suit, singing the beautiful ballad, “I’d Rather be Sailing.” Later Gordo needs an MRI, and he’s told to relax and think about sailing. The rest of the cast sings “Sitting Becalmed in the Lee of Cuttyhunk,” but Gordo’s frustration with Roger’s frequent sailing is evident. As Gordo slides into the MRI machine, we see his facial expressions projected on the wall above him – a very clever special effect added for comedy.
Gordo finds out that he needs very delicate brain surgery, and quite likely he will die during the operation. The night before the surgery, he sends his mother and his boyfriend away, so that he can write a great song. He believes that unless he writes at least one really good song, he will be forgotten after he dies.
When the doctor asks about family history of illnesses, Gordo writes a song in his head, which is acted out on stage: Gordo’s Law of Genetics. While this is a good song, it isn’t the big showstopper he was hoping to write. So immediately, he launches into another song “And They’re Off”. It’s the sad story of his parents’ divorce, resulting from his father’s gambling on horse racing. Despite the comedy of seeing all the characters trot across the stage like horses, the touching lyrics caused some audience members to reach for tissues.
In the second act, we finally see Gordo’s vulnerability as his tough outer shell starts to break down, and he sings the sad ballad “In the Middle of the Room”.
The next day, he lives through the operation, but is in a coma. Roger sings “A Really Lousy Day in the Universe” and again, I had to pull out my Kleenex. Gordo lies in his hospital bed and sings the song “Brain Dead” then has some very strange nightmares. His agent Rhoda is the puppet of the evil Mr. Bungee, then the nice nurse, Richard, is eating himself alive (in reality Richard is getting fat from constantly eating Twinkies).
Finally Gordo comes out the coma when he hears Mr. Bungee singing “Don’t give in”. His old nemesis is actually the one that brings him back to life.
Much of this show is what is going on in Gordo’s head. Hallucinations, his wandering thoughts, his dreams and his nightmares all appear acted out on stage. It might appear confusing, but when one realizes that most of it is in Gordo’s mind, it all makes sense.
At the beginning Gordo is struggling to write a ridiculous song about spring and frogs for Mr. Bungee, called “Frogs have so much Spring”. After his near-death experience Gordo sings “I feel so much spring”. The song “Heart & Music” opens the show and gives a delightful preview of what’s to come, then the show closes with “Time & Music” – Roger has kindly told Gordo that he’s giving him lots of time to recover and put his life and priorities back in order.
It is truly a funny, endearing and heart warming show about hope. But I feel that I need to be like the announcement before the TV shows start “This may not be suitable for all audiences ”. If you are offended by the “f” word, and uncomfortable with gay love scenes, then this might not be the show for you. On the other hand, what else rhymes with Nantucket?
Like Gordon Schwinn, William Finn survives the brain surgery. He makes “A New Brain” into an off-Broadway musical, and later he writes “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee”. It becomes a huge Tony–award winning Broadway smash hit! Also, he has lived with his partner, Arthur Salvatore for 27 years. A success both in music and in love!