“A New Brain,” William Finn’s new musical about a songwriter’s sudden and life-threatening bout of illness, sets a tale of MRIs, hospital beds and brain fluid to a peppy, palatable pop score that’s consistently fleet, flashy and charming. In fact the musical succeeds almost too well in the unlikely task of making a complicated medical crisis musically nimble. Bending over backward to make the grim story of a life-and-death struggle with illness entertaining, Finn & Co. almost succeed in rendering it innocuous. And while the musical is likable from moment to moment, its insistent perkiness and a cast of scene-stealing secondary characters overwhelm what should be a quietly moving story at its core. We’re amused, we’re sometimes mildly wowed, but we’re never moved to the kind of emotional involvement musicals dealing with much less weighty matters can evoke. The whole of “A New Brain” somehow adds up to less than the sum of its often engaging parts.
The musical is drawn from an episode in Finn’s life, when at the height of his success — indeed a week after winning a pair of Tonys for “Falsettoland” in 1992 — he fell suddenly ill and was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. It turned out to be a misdiagnosis, and Finn eventually recovered from his malady, as does his protagonist in “A New Brain,” tunesmith Gordon Michael Schwinn (Malcolm Gets).
As the show opens, Gordon is toiling in the “aquatic, despotic” grasp of Mr. Bungee (played with relish by Finn musical vet Chip Zien), a tyrant in frog suit and yellow tails who hosts a kids TV show. Schwinn is attempting to make a living by churning out ditties for the show, but his heart isn’t in it, as he complains to his friend and co-worker Rhoda (Liz Larsen), who admonishes him for his laziness until Gordon falls face down in his pasta, and his medical ordeal begins.
The beatific smiles and cheery melodies with which nurses and doctors inform Gordon that he may be dying are a delicious exaggeration of the kind of dissonance everyone’s faced in doctors’ offices, when potentially harrowing discussions are conducted in a disturbingly offhand tone. Just as dismaying to Gordon are the controlling ministrations of his mother Mimi (Penny Fuller) and the tardy arrival of his lover Roger (Christopher Innvar), who’s off sailing when Gordon is struck down (“Goyim!” the beleaguered Gordon sighs).
As Gordon begins a grueling round of tests and treatments for what is eventually termed “arterial venal malformation,” the show becomes a sort of free-form musical revue whose disjointedness can’t entirely be excused by much of its taking place inside Gordon’s diseased brain.
The diagnosis of a genetic disorder gives rise to a funny tune about genetics (!) in which the cast sings that “the bad trait will always predominate.” In “And They’re Off,” Gordon looks back on a childhood shaped by a continual battle of wills between his mother and his gambling-addicted father.
Gordon’s “nice nurse,” Richard, played with winning — and rather moist — enthusiasm by Michael Mandell, sings of his own troubles, a case of being “Poor, Unsuccessful and Fat.” Mary Testa, as a cranky homeless woman of big voice and bigger attitude, might have walked off with the show, except that she’s not exactly in it — her connection to Gordon’s plight is rather tenuous and contrived (“Pennies, nickels and dimes, we’re living in perilous times,” she sings, but genetic brain disorders, unlike poverty, are hardly among the endemic perils of modern civilization). Also popping into Gordon’s peripheral vision, in full frog attire and ridiculous red sneak-ers, is Mr. Bungee, alternately tormenting him and bucking him up.
While each song succeeds on its own terms, and Finn’s jingling melodies, though not exactly in the leave-the-theater-humming style, are pleasant, there’s not much dramatic progression to the show, and it becomes increasingly manic and wayward toward the end. (A strange ventriloquism bit almost seems some sort of homage to “Chicago,” the subject of a previous joke, and it’s followed by a tune called “Eating Myself Up Alive,” sung primarily by nurse Richard, that’s rather baffling.) Although its ostensible thematic arc is Gordon’s psychological journey, that remains pretty vague: It’s difficult to determine just how Gordon has been changed by his experience because we didn’t know much about him before it. He’s in a better mood at musical’s end, a change symbolized by the final song, a paean to life called “I Feel So Much Spring.” But that’s about as deep as it goes.
As the characters on the periphery of Gordon’s life gradually gain definition — particularly his mother Mimi, who has a great, torchy Sondheim-diva number toward the close, replete with black gown and spotlight — Gordon and his lover Roger don’t. That’s not due to any lack in the performances, for Gets is endearing and vocally impeccable as Gordon, and Innvar does what he can with the starched, underwritten (unwritten?) role of Roger.
The fault lies in Finn and co-book writer James Lapine’s construction of the show itself. Despite being vir-tually sung-through — or indeed perhaps because of it — it seems more a disconnected series of numbers strung together than a shapely told tale. Director-choreographer Graciela Daniele’s energetic and clever staging notwithstanding, the show ends up giving us a set of X-rays of its hero’s life-changing experience, but doesn’t communicate the profundity of the experience itself. Then again, if you have to examine a set of X-rays, the singing and dancing kind are clearly the best.