Occasionally, you walk away from a play or musical and think, “Huh, I wonder what it would be like to pick the playwright’s brain because that was a unique show.” The Colonial Players of Annapolis, directed by Alicia Sweeney, beautifully tackle the charming, autobiographical musical of William Finn’s bout with a deadly brain disease which could have prevented him from making heartfelt music. Welcome to “A New Brain.”
For those who are unfamiliar with William Finn, he is known for his award-winning “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee” and “Falsettos.” Soon after “Falsetto” opened, he was hospitalized and diagnosed with arteriovenous malformation, which is a tangle of blood vessels that cause issues with blood flow to the brain. Finn survived this terrifying ordeal and chronicled his journey through the character of Gordon Schwinn. “A New Brain” opens with Schwinn struggling to compose a piece for a children’s television show, which seems to cause his collapse. Schwinn is rushed to the hospital, where he deals with juggling his profession, his family issues, his distant boyfriend, and his fragile health.
A difficult show to perform, ‘A New Brain’ has hit the nail on the head with the phenomenal talent and a dazzling design.
The Colonial Players of Annapolis have done it again. Excellent casting, sleek blocking, sharp lighting, and clever choreography anchor this production within the first five minutes. Music director Jessica Deskin has triumphed the difficult fugues, countermelodies, and unique harmonies that the composer wove into his score. Director and choreographer Alicia Sweeney is a brain surgeon in the metaphorical sense as she manages to control the whirlwind of a show like that of a goddess.
Cast members worked well with each other and all the personalities felt balanced. Ron Giddings (Gordon Schwinn) had no difficulty with the emotional range and physicality demanded from him. Vocally, he was consistent, clear, and engaging. Schwinn’s boyfriend Roger played by Shane Conrad complemented Giddings’ voice beautifully. This is first demonstrated in “Sailing,” which could be described as a dark parody of a Disney duet. The power of Giddings’ voice was tempered with the sweetness of Conrad’s. Rebecca Downs (Mimi Schwinn) is an expert in her craft and hurt the heart to watch as she launched her son’s book collection through the window in a particular moment of angry grief. Heather McMunigal (Rhoda) plays Schwinn’s best friend and the chemistry is meaningful and often humorous.
Each one of featured cast members brought something special to the theater in the round. Tom Newbrough as Mr. Bungee enjoyed taunting Gordon Schwinn. His deep voice antagonized and irritated poor Schwinn as he received more and worse medical news. At least the nurses, Nancy D. and Richard, played by the splendid Jamie Erin Miller and Glen Singer, respectively, attempted to tame the grim mood with a bit of sass and numb optimism. Aref Dajani as Dr. Jafar Berensteiner was as if the Grim Reaper decided to have a bubbly outlook on life. He delivered bad news in the best of ways. Eric Meadows as the Minister was always a delightful presence on stage, even if William Schwinn didn’t think so. And of course, Cheryl J. Campo as the unusual Homeless Lady knocked her songs out of the park with powerful vibratos and strength which left a lasting impression.
The set design was minimal but extremely effective. A piano/gurney spun Schwinn through his decline and rise with cleverly programmed LED lights. Lighting hit a new high thanks to designer John Purnell. Each actor hit their spot accurately, which surely has to make Purnell smile with such a fast-paced and energetic show. Little details such as witty whiteboard comments and frog washcloths were appreciated. From costumes (Fran Marchand and Lura Meyers) to choreography (Alicia Sweeney), every creative decision was picked with thoughtfulness.
A difficult show to perform, “A New Brain” has hit the nail on the head with the phenomenal talent and a dazzling design. While this show is a long one-act, it feels much more like an amusement park ride of love, life, and a win over death.
Running Time: About 95 minutes with NO intermission and NO late seating.
“A New Brain” plays through May 5th, 2019 at The Colonial Players of Annapolis in Annapolis, Maryland. For tickets or more information, click here.