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Pam Peadon, Doug Miller, and Donald Fowler in A New Brain
(Photo: George Wada)
If a dancing frog can sing about people losing their virginity "to those with whom they have no affinity," then a composer can survive a supposedly fatal brain tumor and write a musical in response to his experiences. A New Brain, the semi-autobiographical show by composer-lyricist William Finn (Falsettos, Elegies), premiered at New York's Lincoln Center Theater in 1998. The Uptown Players' vibrant production proves that this somewhat obscure celebration of love, life, and art is a well crafted, meaningful piece of musical theater.

Word is that that the songs which eventually became A New Brain poured out of Finn as soon as he returned from the hospital. The show opens with composer Gordon Schwinn (Donald Fowler) in quite the opposite situation: He cannot come up with a song for the children's television show for which he works. When Gordon collapses during lunch with a friend, he is taken to the hospital, where a doctor finds "trouble in his brain." Gordon's mother, his lover, and a friend gather to support him as he prepares for surgery -- but he also finds himself at the mercy of that pompous doctor, two meddling nurses, an uninvited minister, and even a bitter yet wise homeless woman. Meanwhile, he is haunted by visions of his boss, Mr. Bungee (Bruce Coleman), who nightmarishly but comically appears in the frog costume and makeup that he wears as the TV show's host.

Although the plot of the show deals with serious issues, Finn looks at everything with humor and understanding. In the Uptown Players' production, the dynamic story is complemented by colorful, geometric scenery, designed by Andy Redmon, that literally pops up from the stage when needed; the top of a triangular yellow desk, a rectangular pink hospital bed, and other pieces are always visible on stage, even when they are not being used.

In A New Brain, Finn pokes fun at what goes on in a hospital, and Pamela Peadon (who also plays Gordon's mother) uses simple, peppy choreography to make the upbeat musical numbers even more amusing. Movements during "Heart and Music" at the beginning of the show are somewhat awkward, but ensemble numbers later on ("Gordo's Law of Genetics," "And They're Off") capture the humor of the songs without overemphasis. Particularly entertaining is "Eating Myself Up Alive," in which the helpful and caring nurse Richard (Rick Prada) agonizes over where his life is going.

Prada offers a sweet performance as Richard, "the nice nurse." Amy Fisher does not make as much of an impression as Nancy D., "the thin nurse," a character written as the complete opposite of Richard. The funniest performance in the role of a hospital figure comes from Jim Johnson as Dr. Jafar Berensteiner. This fellow may be brilliant in the operating room but he's clueless when it comes to dealing with patients on a personal level. "And now I have to go," he declares after breaking the news that Gordon requires an operation; "My kids and I have tickets to Chicago!"

Jim Johnson, Bruce Coleman, Rick Prada, and Donald Fowler
in A New Brain
(Photo: George Wada)
Fowler and Kyle Douglas Miller (as Gordon's lover, Roger) work well together and deliver strong vocal harmonies, yet Fowler is not always commanding in the central role. The featured actors really shine in this production, from Coleman's evil Mr. Bungee to Stephanie Riggs as Gordon's frazzled friend Rhoda, not to mention Jeff Kinman as a soulful minister. As Gordon's mom, Peadon is usually smiley, but the fear of a mother who might lose her son slips in at just the right moments; Peadon's Act II solo "The Music Still Plays On" is compelling. N. Wilson King, with her powerful voice, does one of the show's most effective turns as Lisa, the homeless lady who begs for change yet refuses dollar bills.
"Life is wonderful," Gordon and Roger declare at the end of the show. The message of A New Brain is that friends, family, and art are worth fighting for even when it seems hopeless. Gordon is an artist, but it is not until his near-death experience that he can write his masterpiece. "What was dark so long had felt like winter; finally, there's sun," he proclaims. "And so I sing that I feel so much spring." This is a beautiful musical, especially in the Uptown Players' appealing production.

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