Review: A New Brain

threestarsIt is some pretty heady stuff (no pun intended) – a musical about brain surgery – and while the current production of A New Brain from Pipedream Theatre Project definitely has plenty of heart it suffers from poor acoustics and an ensemble that is more times than not overpowered by the small orchestra.

A New BrainA semi-autographical piece from playwright William Finn, probably better known for his Tony Award winning shows Falsettos and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, A New Brain re-tells Finn’s own near-death experience from brain surgery.

Gordon Schwinn (Andrew Cohen) is a young songwriter up against a deadline to write a song for a popular children’s television show featuring a frog named Mr Bungee (Arne Larson). Problem is he just doesn’t feel it anymore and is convinced that he has more important music to create than some silly song for a frog.

Frustrated, he meets up with his agent Rhoda (Lee McKeown) for lunch and as his meal arrives finds himself rushed to hospital and diagnosed with arteriovenous malformation and must undergo a risky craniotomy. Gordon is soon joined in the hospital by his mother Mimi (Sabrina Prada) and his lover Roger (Tyson Coady) who support him through the ordeal and they, along with the hospital staff, become fodder for all of those songs that he knew were inside him.

Although perhaps a little self-indulgent by its autobiographical nature, A New Brain nevertheless does offer up some real gems both touching and sometimes very, very funny. But what prevents us from really enjoying this production though is the cavernous Granville Island Performance Works and the overpowering orchestra that doesn’t allow us to fully appreciate what Finn has written. We end up spending far too much time concentrating on hearing what is being sung to spend any real time getting to know or connecting with the characters. This is particularly true of Cohen, who although he has an incredible voice (when we did hear it), he just doesn’t have the lung power to overcome the venue or the orchestra.  Interestingly, it is a brief moment towards the end of the show, sans music, with Roger surrounded by his “family” that most rings true.

Prada, Coady and Larson do a slightly better job in getting their voices heard but are again hampered this time by Director Mike Mackenzie’s decision to do the show in three-quarter round where we find the actors with their backs to us too much of the time.

I was particulary impressed with some of the secondary characters including Matt Hume as “nice” nurse Richard, Cathy Wilmot as the homeless woman Lisa, and Brandon Parent as the Minister.

Choreographer Keri Minty does a good job in the space and with the actors and combined with Mackenzie’s direction actually had me thinking about All That Jazz, especially in the larger production numbers. Minty and Mackenzie mercifully use Gordon’s hospital bed with restraint and Minty’s tango is simply inspired. And it is actually Minty that helps, to some extent, with the decision to do the show on a thrust stage, by moving the actors across the stage to play all three sides during the larger production numbers.

Ultimately the decision to not use microphones is the real reason that the show doesn’t quite work and one can only assume that the added costs for a small group like Pipedream prevented them from having the necessary sound equipment. This a huge shame because I am convinced that there is a really good show here if only we could hear and experience it all.

A New Brain continues at Performance Works through June 21st. Tickets are $15-$20 and available online through Tickets Tonigh or by calling 604.684.2787.

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