Sunday, February 15, 2009

A New Brain

The musical A New Brain, at the Berkeley Street Theatre Downstairs, is remarkable, first for its writing, and secondly for the level of performance in this well-directed production.

It is a musical about a gay guy who writes songs for a children's show starring a man in a frog suit. One day, while lunching with his hag, he has a health crisis and is admitted to the hospital. His mother and boyfriend and the hag all rush around him as he lay there, on the brink. He hallucinates, they operate, he survives and flourishes. The subplot involves his mother throwing away all his books because she believes they brought on his brain pain, and they end up in a homeless woman's shopping cart. None of this sounds like it could be funny, moving and entertaining, but it is, because the show's author, William Finn, wrote from his own experiences, and he can write a great song.

Many of the songs are a reminder of how daring musical theatre can be. I enjoyed the fat actor singing a song about being fat, and the mother has some great numbers, and the Asian actor playing the doctor is hilarious. But the showstopper is when Thom Allison sings "I'd Rather Be Sailing", a classic example of how an actor with a strong voice can literally elevate the entire audience and keep them there.

The set, mostly clinical white drapes and glass bricks, is striking. As my theatre-going companion Howard Kane said between sobs, it's great to sit through a musical that does not require amplification. Plus I love a show with no intermission. This production, from Mitchell Marcus' Acting Up Stage, earned a standing ovation on opening night, not a surprise. This is a great night of theatre.