William Finn is a name well-known to musical theater aficionados, but not one that has gotten much attention from the masses. His small-scale chamber musicals — “In Trousers,” “March of the Falsettos,” “Falsettoland” — have been well-received, but his works tend to be a bit too presentational — one song follows another, telling a story with little to no dialogue — and maybe a bit too self-consciously personal to break out from their limited appeal.
“A New Brain,” which chronicles a composer’s battle with a brain injury (Finn himself suffered such an emergency), was a significant hit in New York but is only arriving in Los Angeles three years later. One can harp on the delay, and the lack of event status that therefore is accompanying this accomplished West Coast Ensemble production, but the optimists among us should simply declare that late is far better than never.
In “A New Brain,” Gordon Michael Schwinn (James Benjamin Cooper) is a hardworking songwriter making a living composing children’s songs for a television frog named Mr. Bungee (Don Cummings in full frog regalia).
Gordon’s life turns suddenly when he collapses over lunch with his friend Rhoda (Shandi Sinnamon). His often-distracted doctor (Dominick Morra) finally determines the cause to be a pre-existing condition in his brain, which will require risky surgery. As he sits in the hospital bed, which in Evan Bartoletti’s efficient set design had cleverly served in the opening scene as a grand piano, Gordon imagines all the songs he’s not yet written.
Finn’s not an elaborate storyteller, and since there’s little spoken material it can be concluded that James Lapine’s contributions (he’s listed as co-writer of the book) are principally structural.
The material is extremely character-driven, with the songs announcing, describing, and certainly defining the characters who sing them: an overweight nurse (Tony Stovall) launches into a song about being “Poor, Unsuccessful and Fat,” Gordon’s mother Mimi (Jan Sheldrick) demonstrates her stubborn outer shell of optimism with “Mother’s Gonna Make Things Fine,” and Gordon’s lover Roger (Peter Welkin) establishes his all-American preppiness with “I’d Rather Be Sailing.”
Lapine has been a frequent collaborator of Stephen Sondheim (“Sunday in the Park with George,” “Into the Woods”), and clearly there’s an abundance of similarities to be found between the two composer/lyricists, primarily their sophisticated lingual playfulness and a melodic sound that’s pure contemporary musical theater.
Other than Sondheim and Finn, it’s hard to imagine another composer who so readily rhymes “virginity” with “affinity,” or who would craft songs about virginity to begin with. West Coast Ensemble has made a bit of a specialty of Sondheim revivals, like last season’s “Merrily We Roll Along,” and the experience has clearly served them well.
Director Todd Nielsen handles the presentational style of “A New Brain” quite well, keeping everything moving at a rapid pace — there are more than 30 songs delivered in a svelte two-hour running time.
Nielsen throws in some relatively mundane but pleasantly whimsical choreography for the bigger numbers, hard to do in such a small space, which occasionally feels cramped. The four-member band, placed backstage, remains unseen to the audience.
The further the story advances, the further we venture into Gordon’s mind, with ever more fanciful songs, often involving the frog.
The other characters continue to react to the possibility of Gordon’s death, with the most potent and dramatic song, “Throw It Out” coming from Sheldrick. Songs advance plot (“Roger Arrives,” “Operation Tomorrow”) deepen themes (“Change,” the fear and acceptance of which is Finn’s most blatant concern), and reflect on the nature of artistic creation (the very beautiful “Heart and Music”). All consistently reflect Finn’s always engaging wit.
The show is exceedingly well-sung, with the able cast capturing the harmonies of Jason Robert Brown’s arrangements. Jennie Fahn is a vocal stand-out as a homeless woman who appears throughout, but everybody in this cast is worthy and game.
As Gordon, Cooper brings the right straightforward likability to the role, and manages to lead the ensemble in creating the tone Finn often seeks in his shows, which, despite the dark subject matter, is ultimately upbeat and heartfelt.