You don’t have to be a brain surgeon to enjoy William Finn’s autobiographical musical about a composer coping with a life-threatening brain tumor — just a person open-minded enough to appreciate unorthodox song structure, unusual rhymes (“despotic” and “aquatic”) and what the writer calls his “smart neurotic voice.” This surreal journey pokes affectionate fun at doctors, nurses, children’s musicals, possessive mothers and frustrated songwriters, and the rewards for remaining receptive to Finn’s music are immense.
Director David Lee, responsible for Reprise’s cutting-edge concert version of “Assassins,” knits the tuner’s disparate elements together so harmoniously that they seem like logical pieces of a psychological puzzle.
Finn (whose new production “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” opens Off Broadway on Monday), has covered such varied subjects as the Rosenbergs in “Sizzle,” artist Aubrey Beardsley (“Rape”) and a whorehouse (“Scrambled Eggs”). During a 1985 interview, he commented to me, “I’m going to die very young”; in 1992 he was diagnosed with a brain tumor.
In the show, this collapse is preceded by despair when Finn’s fictional stand-in, Gordon, can’t finish a song about frogs for his curmudgeonly employer, Mr. Bungee (Robert Picardo). Gets, impressively repeating the role he originated in the 1998 Lincoln Center production, made us understand the nature of a composer writing silly childlike ditties while believing he was destined for greater things.
Finn has created a series of resonant characters with collaborator James Lapine, director of his breakthrough musical “March of the Falsettos.” Portraying Gordon’s life partner, who loves the open sea, Kevin Earley — a brilliant singer and actor who is overdue for major stardom — brought down the house with an enthralling version of the show’s most memorable tune, “Sailing.”
Karen Morrow has a singing and acting field day as Gordon’s mother, catching the pathos in “The Music Still Plays On” and comically observing in “Family History” of his weak genetic traits, “anything that’s wrong is his father’s.” She also projects convincing anger at her sick son, bluntly lashing out, “Asshole … where’s his fight and vigor?”
The show incorporates an accurate zap at the music business, when Mr. Bungee, noting his staff writer’s deteriorating condition, heartlessly announces that the song Gordon was hired to write will now be assigned to Bungee’s son.
In an ensemble of exceptional voices that spotlighted Picardo, Kevin Chamberlin, Heather Lee and Beth Malone, Nita Whitaker scores strongly as a homeless lady with “Change,” furnishing a full-throated plea for pennies, nickels and dimes. Harrison White contributes a droll study in self-deprecation (“Poor, Unsuccessful and Fat”), and Stuart Ambrose displays terrific vocal chops as a well-meaning, blundering minister.
This Reprise presentation proves that “A New Brain” deserves to be plucked from obscurity and produced by innovative theater companies around the world.