by: Keith David Dillon
In the world of the American Musical Theatre, William Finn is something else altogether. In the main, writers in this world take their stories from literature and cinema, but William Finn, with the help of his frequent collaborator James Lapine, finds his stories within the everyday events of his own life. Finn cuts his musicals from the whole cloth of his life and sets them to scores that crackle with the rhythms of modern pop music. A New Brain, now in production at the Rude Guerrilla Theatre in Santa Ana, is a pristine example of the art of William Finn, the musical autobiographer. A New Brain tells the story of a young composer working, as it turns out, for a children television show. The producer/host of this show is a bit of a prick, and the young composer dreams of finding a way out of his indentures: selling his Broadway show, writing for a Pop star, anything. While having an after-work dinner with a colleague, the young composer falls inexplicably to the floor. His fall comes as the consequence of a rare brain disorder; a risky operation is needed or death is certain. Members of his family, an over-protective Jewish mother, his colleague and best friend from the television show and his emotionally stable mariner of a lover, rush to his side. Their presence is as disconcerting as it is comforting. The surgery is risky and could end in coma or death. After an all too lengthy wait, the composer recovers and his life returns to normal.
William Finn is, indeed, something else altogether. I can think of no other composer in the history of the American Musical that sets her/his own life stories to music. That fact alone makes his work unique in modern American theatre. His musicals are also beautifully written, well-crafted pieces of dramaturgy, thanks in large part to his collaboration with James Lapine, one of the American Musical’s finest living book writers. The stories Finn and Lapine tell are as recognizably literary as are Garrison Keiller’s News from Lake Woebegone. Outside the individuality of his literary voice, however, Mr. Finn’s music is not especially memorable. Since the defacto retirement of Stephen Sondheim, the American Musical has been blessed with a small list of musical masters. Ricky Ian Gordon, Michael John LaChiusa & Adam Guettel, among others, have written a string of glorious scores for the American stage. Jason Robert Brown, another pop stylist in the American theatre, spices his gentle romances with songs of enough wit and poetry to remind this reviewers of master singer-songwriters like Joni Mitchell and Jackson Browne. William Finn’s music can’t compete with either the lush textures of LaChiusa, Guettel & Gordon or the rhythmic wit of Jason Robert Brown. Music aside, William Finn is still a helluva story teller.
The production of A New Brain currently being presented at the Rude Guerrilla Theatre in Santa Ana, originated across the street from the Rude Guerrilla at the Grand Central, the Santa Ana extension of Cal State Fullerton’s school of the arts. The production is directed by Patrick Pearson and it stars the original cast of CSUF students and recent CSUF graduates. The production is an appealing one, certainly, but it’s far too energetic for a theatre as small as The Rude Guerrilla. Please understand; my complaint is purely as technical one. The Rude Guerrilla is, as I’ve said, small in size and, acoustically speaking, it’s extremely live. The singers in this cast are blessed with enormous voices, and they are determined to make their voices heard to the back of the house. The back of the house, however, is only twenty feet from the action. A New Brain is a through composed musical and Mr. Finn’s lyrics are as intricate of dialogue. Given that, and given the relentless enormity of some of these voices, I couldn’t make out many of the Mr. Finn’s words. I could hear them, I just couldn’t decipher them.
There are stand-out performances, certainly. Ryan Wagner plays Gordon Schwinn, the young songwriter. Mr. Wagner is gentle, easy to like and possessed of a perfectly lovely tenor voice. As Roger, Gordon’s lover, Jeffrey Aiken is a sweet natured, wonderful presence in this story. As Gordon’s mother, Aimee Karlin is a bit young, but she readily finds a mother’s rage, her clinginess and her devotion to Gordon. Luke Jacobs plays Richard, the nice nurse. Mr. Jacobs is delightfully funny as the nurse who’s infatuated attempts at Gordon’s border on stalking. Ashley Kane is uproarious as both an over-enthusiastic waitress and a Nurse who heals her patients with pain. Mr. Jacobs and Ms. Kane are both richly gifted comedians and their time onstage, whether working together or with other cast members, is delicious. Kaitlyn Etter plays Lisa, a homeless woman. Ms. Etter is a fine enough actress with a wonderful voice that, unfortunately, is far too large for this venue; a little mezzo voce is in order. Jesse Bradley plays Mr. Bungee, the foul tempered amphibian who hosts the children’s show Gordon works for. Mr. Bradley is an excellent actor and a gifted musician to boot.
The uncredited set design is a bare set, decorated with an electric piano, a drum set and, at center stage, a gurney. The gurney moves about and the actors bring props and set dressings on with them to change the gurney’s appearance to fit each scene. The set’s simplicity fits Mr. Finn’s personal style quite well. This production relies on actors providing their own musical accompaniment, a la John Doyle’s popular Sondheim revivals. Ashley Kane plays a clarinet, several actors play the piano, and several others play either the drums, the bass or the guitar. A couple play all three, most notably, Mr. Bradley. If there is anything the production is in bad need of, it is a sharper sound design. The orchestrations are not well mixed and, as with the voices, they occasionally overwhelm the hall. E.J. Brown’s naturalistic light design suits this production well.
No one in the American Theatre tells a tale quite the way William Finn does. Cal State Fullerton has put together a fine production of one of Mr. Finn’s most eccentric, perhaps even one of his most moving works. It was wise of Rude Guerrilla to revive the production. The production, at least on opening night, was not yet tuned to the venue, but this is a technical matter. It can be fixed. So go see A New Brain and let the folks at the theatre do the tuning.
For tickets and information about A New Brain, call 714-547-4688 or log on to rudeguerrilla.org.