REVIEW: A New Brain - 2015 Encores! Concert Cast
William Finn and James Lapine’s 1998 off-Broadway tuner A New Brain has always been one of my favorite musicals. It’s a show that is bursting with life even as its central character, Gordon Schwinn, who is suffering from a brain malady, stares death right in the face. I fell in love with the show’s gorgeously rich and tuneful score when I first heard it at Lincoln Center almost twenty years ago, and the original cast album featuring the likes of Malcolm Gets, Norm Lewis, Mary Testa, and even a very young Kristin Chenoweth, has remained on my playlist ever since.
Many fans of the show were of course overjoyed when Encores! announced that they would be including Finn’s autobiographical musical in last summer’s Off-Center series at City Center. The production, directed by the show’s librettist James Lapine, featured Broadway wunderkind Jonathan Groff in the lead role of Gordon Schwinn, who offered one of the most moving, funny, and heartbreaking performances of the season.
What a treat then that PS Classics not only recorded this short concert event for posterity, but gave us a two-disc version of the virtually sung-thru musical in the process. While the original cast recording does remain a “must-have,” this more complete recording features some lyric changes and song revisions for the 2015 production (There have also been some cuts to the score in this version, none of which were really missed).
While Falsettos will probably always be Finn’s signature work, A New Brain, for many listeners, runs a close second, offering up a catalog of dazzlingly stunning songs (many of which Finn wrote while suffering from his neurological malady) that are filled with joy, light, and unabashed heart-on-your-sleeve emotion. The show’s standouts include great ensemble numbers including “Heart and Music” (now smartly orchestrated to include the sound of a heart monitor), “And They’re Off,” in which we learn of Gordon’s father’s gambling problems, and “I Feel So Much Spring,” which beautifully closes the show. Finn’s inimitable frantic musical pacing is ever present, but so too are multiple moving ballads whose lyrics are honest, open, and wholly unforced.
A New Brain has a plethora of outstanding ensemble numbers, but there are of course many solo opportunities allowing both the leads and strong supporting cast to shine. As Gordon’s take-charge mother, Ana Gasteyer (most well-known from Saturday Night Live) continues to prove that she is one of theater’s most talented actresses, belting out “Mother’s Gonna Make Things Fine” and “Throw It Out” with aplomb, while equally at home with the ballad “The Music Still Plays On.” Rema Webb does well as the Homeless Lady with “Change” (although Mary Testa cannot be bested in that role). Christian Borle covers for the concert’s Dan Fogler who was unavailable for the recording, and offers a passable, though hardly defining take on the role of Mr. Bungee. Aaron Lazar plays Gordon’s lover, Roger, and while he is a pleasant singer, comes off as a bit dull on this recording. I’d be remiss to leave out Jenni Barber (Nancy D, the thin nurse) and Josh Lamon (Richard, the nice nurse), who are both hysterical in supporting roles. Lamon, in particular, with his high tenor voice, offers a hilariously funny take on a bit part and is a delight to listen to.
Ultimately, though, this is Groff’s show and his supple, effortless voice makes this recording a real pleasure. Gordon is not always the most likable character and for Groff to play him so winningly is a testament to his acting and musical chops. There are only seven musicians in the band, but the show features the tight, original vocal arrangements by Jason Robert Brown (yes, that Jason Robert Brown) and sharp orchestrations by Broadway vet Michael Starobin.
Per PS Classics’ usual spare-no-expense packaging, this double-disc album features complete lyrics, essays, and production photos, including what may be a first to my knowledge, staged production photos of vocal replacement Christian Borle (in Mr. Bungee’s frog costume!) to complete the experience. For anyone who missed this short-lived concert, the album captures the experience well, and for those who got to see it, we can relive the magic again. Lucky us.
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A New Brain - 2015 Concert Cast A New Brain - 1998 Original Off-Broadway Cast A New Brain Falsettos Jason Robert Brown Jenni Barber Josh Lamon Aaron Lazar Rema Webb Jonathan Groff Ana Gasteyer Dan Fogler Christian Borle Mary Testa Michael Starobin Norm Lewis James Lapine Malcolm Gets William Finn Kristin Chenoweth Heart and Music (4) Mother's Gonna Make Things Fine (2) And They're Off (5) Change (3) Throw It Out (2) The Music Still Plays On (3) I Feel So Much Spring (3) Toggle Additional (24)