The Longwood Players’ performance of A New Brain is an excellent example of what community productions do to good theatre. It teases us, gives us a taste of how divine a show can be, but ultimately fails to live up to the excellent book and score by William Finn and James Lapine.
A New Brain chronicles one man’s struggle to overcome his illness and to find something to immortalize him. A New Brain is vaguely reminiscent of the pop-opera Rent, in which one of the lead characters, Roger, searches to write a song to be remembered for before he dies of complications from AIDS, but focuses more intimately on our ability to rationalize death and how to truly live without limitations.
Gordon Michael Schwinn (Michael Kripchak) is a youngish composer who is constantly at odds with his boss, a man named Mr. Bungee, who, throughout the show, voices Gordon’s fears and insecurities. Mr. Bungee acts in a children’s show, starring a frog, and Gordon writes the songs for it. Gordon collapses one day due to a brain complication and his life suddenly changes and his priorities shift. Faced with the realization that he may soon be dead, Gordon has to choose whether or not he wants to spend his last night before his possibly life-saving operation with his boyfriend, or writing one last song for Mr. Bungee.
Kripchak goes flat a few times but has a consistently earnest stage presence that allows the audience to sympathize with him, the ultimate hurtle in playing a character who is dying of a brain condition for half of the show.
Kripchak is upstaged by the incredible vocals of Katie Pickett, who plays the Homeless Lady and speaks as the conscience of the show, always asking for “pennies, or nickels, or dimes,” because “we live in perilous times.”
She pops in to commiserate with the other characters or help them toward some revelation needed to move the plot along. Pickett sings with a boisterous, infectious energy, and always seems to be the actor having the most fun onstage.
Another remarkable performance comes from Jackie Duffy. She plays Gordon’s friend and co-worker Rhoda with a sophisticated voice, an enigmatic presence onstage and a level of comfort in her role which makes Rhoda seem all the more real. Gordon’s mother Mimi, played by Jocelyn Hesse, also has a few moments of unbridled emotion which are very impressive.
However, the most exceptional performances happened when the cast got together as a whole to sing the group numbers, allowing their slight imperfections and flat notes to be swallowed by William Finn’s delightful melodies. The cast performed particularly well in the show’s catchiest numbers “Heart and Music” and “I Feel So Much Spring.”
The upbeat, soulful song “Heart and Music” was wonderfully harmonious, especially when the orchestra faded out and the actors sang a cappella. The sweet and smooth finale, “I Feel So Much Spring” is an anthem of positivity and the culmination of the burning questions that plagued the lead characters throughout the show.
Other numbers in the show lacked a similar structure that would make them addictive; they are scattered, obtuse and a little too operatic at times. In fact, most of the show is sung, with some dialogue here and there. The surreal dance numbers, meant to depict Gordon’s time in a coma, are a bit jerky and simplistic and could have had a greater level of ingenuity.
Director Daniel L. Rabone smoothly coordinates the show so there are no awkward set pieces being moved on and off by stage-hands, but it would have been nice not to see the leads lugging around benches in the semi-darkness during the scene changes.
Community theatre has a set of limitations, and A New Brain clearly demonstrates that. It’s cute, but certainly does not have the zest and magic of an original Broadway production.
There was excellent acting that deserves to be recognized and it was clear that the cast was enthusiastic and dedicated to portraying their roles. Their largest failing was that they are not professional-but for a not-for-profit community production, they did admirably well with what they had to work with.
A New Brain will play at the Cambridge YMCA in Central Square on April 26, 27 and 28.