‘A New Brain’: William Finn and James Lapine’s medical musical about a stroke
Amanda Kruger (they/them) and the company of the Celebration Theatre in association with the Los Angeles LGBT Center production of “A NEW BRAIN,” directed by Khanisha Foster and now playing at the Davidson/Valentini Theatre. | Jeff Lorch Photography

LOS ANGELES — What if your heart had an undiagnosed arteriovenous malformation that eventually caught up with you and one day out of the blue you keeled over your lunch from a catastrophic stroke?

Hey, sounds like a musical!

Composer-lyricist William Finn (b. 1952) is a well-known creator of musicals, including Falsettos, for which he won the 1992 Tony Awards for Best Original Score and Best Book of a Musical, and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (2005), and in between them, the somewhat less familiar A New Brain (1998).

As he has done with incidents and episodes from real life, Finn, with his collaborator James Lapine, wrote this musical based freely on his own near-death experience following brain surgery for just such a stroke. The main character, Gordon Schwinn, is a gay composer, and the resultant musical explores the role of music, as well as the supportive people around him, in his recovery. Finn incorporated his longtime partner, Arthur Salvadore, as the character Roger Delli-Bovi. Finn’s mother is also a character. A New Brain featured Malcolm Gets, Kristin Chenoweth, and Chip Zien, premiering at the Lincoln Center Theater. It won the 1999 Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding Off-Broadway Musical.

Whitney Avalon (she/her). | Jeff Lorch Photography

Given the difficult material it centers on, revivals are understandably uncommon. But it’s now winding up a new, original staging by the Celebration Theatre in association with the Los Angeles LGBT Center. Hurry! Its closing performances are June 24.

Celebration Theatre being the country’s longest-standing queer company, both Finn and Lapine granted it their approval and express permission to present A New Brain in a fresh conceit, a reimagined gender-expansive look at their milestone musical. And why not? Is there truly anything so gender-specific about this story? In this new version, Gordon (Amanda Kruger) is a non-binary character (“enby”), and their lover, still called Roger, is played by Yassi Noubahar, who uses feminine pronouns. Other roles are assumed by actors more or less conforming to their original genders, but the staging suggests the greater breadth and freedom of expression we are used to seeing nowadays.

Celebration Theatre has a new leader, Brittney S. Wheeler, who comments, “In my first offering as Artistic Director, the reason why I wanted to bring gender-expansive casting to this work was that I wanted to see non-binary, gender-variant, and/or female-identifying folx from all walks of life tell this story. I wanted them to have a chance to be seen and heard, to bring out nuances that may have not been felt or seen before in this work: the trouble that these people, as well as plus-sized and Black women, face in the medical establishment to get the care they need; complex familial relationships; generational rifts and/or misunderstanding; and self-image issues. Director Khanisha Foster brings to this shared vision a vivid insight into the human condition and the blueprint for making genuinely potent and enthralling theatre which is so needed right now. Khanisha’s vision leans into the comedy, the language of the music, but most of all the heart and humanity of these characters.”

Gordon wakes up in a hospital bed, surrounded by their lover, mother, co-worker, doctor, and nurses. Coming face to face with their own mortality, Gordon confronts their great fear that they may die with their greatest songs still unwritten. Specifically, they are struggling to complete a song about a frog that’s been commissioned by Mr. Bungee (Richardson Cisneros-Jones), a demanding, somewhat tyrannical director/producer/star of his own children’s television show. Well, without their recovery, there’d be no musical, so yes (spoiler alert!), Gordon does survive the operation and there’s a happy ending showing them surrounded by completed scores of all the songs (for this partly autobiographical musical!).

And the eternal verities are reaffirmed: the power of art (music in this case), love, creativity, and a support system of professionals and friends to sustain life.

Finn has often been compared to Stephen Sondheim, and it’s not an unfair connection to draw. But he has a style that’s his own, combining his wordy, artfully constructed songs into solos, duets, and many-layered ensemble numbers. In a show that lasts about 100 minutes (in one act), almost 40 separate numbers are listed in the score, including such songs as “Frogs Have So Much Spring,” “911 Emergency,” “Mother’s Gonna Make Things Fine,” “Trouble in Their Brain,” “Be Polite to Everyone,” “Sailing,” “Gordo’s Law of Genetics,” “MRI Tomorrow,” “Poor, Unsuccessful and Fat,” “An Invitation to Sleep in My Arms,” “Change,” “Throw It Out,” “A Really Lousy Day in the Universe,” “Brain Dead,” “Eating Myself Up Alive,” “Music Still Plays On,” “Don’t Give In,” “Time and Music,” “Craniotomy,” and more. The New York Times called this a musical of “captivating eccentricity.”

On the evening I attended (June 14), the director summoned an après-show panel of three stroke survivors to talk about and compare their experiences, and take questions from the audience. Considering how scary a life-threatening stroke can be, these were inspiring stories indeed. Needless to say, not everyone recovers from such a momentous medical event.

The Davidson/Valentini Theatre is a kind of “black box,” a single, smallish room with ranked seating on four sides that one could hardly imagine populated all at once by the ten actors in this show. The use of space is simply magical in its invention, with exuberant choreography by Alli Miller-Fisher. Gregory Nabours supplies the musical direction from his keyboard, joined by three other musicians on drums and percussion (Gianluca Palmieri), cello (Alec Glass), and reeds (Michaell Bustamante). There are no bad seats in the house. Having said which, it’s a busy show with a lot of sound, movement, and words, and not all the singers will be facing your direction at all times, so don’t expect to capture every word of every song on one visit. Even in a proscenium theater mounting a work like Falsettos, this is also true: It’s extremely rich, dense material not to be consumed all at once.

Yassi Noubahar (she/her) and Amanda Kruger (they/them). | Jeff Lorch Photography

Finn and Lapine early on established strong, individual, and believable characters in Falsettos with whom audiences could readily identify. In A New Brain, their personae are more representational: The Patient, The Lover, The Mother, The Nurse, etc. While some have their own backstories that help explain their past history—Roger’s pastime of sailing, Mimi’s divorce from Gordon’s feckless father, etc.—there is less room here, in a story with a single arc, for character development. So while the show is thoroughly entertaining, and one leaves the theater feeling uplifted, the people we meet are emotionally less affecting. Yet the actors, called upon to sing, act, dance, scramble up and down stairs and scaffolding, run on and off stage with hospital beds and all manner of props, were simply terrific.

Other cast members include Emily King Brown (seen June 14) as the mother Mimi Schwinn (usually played by Gina Torrecilla), Ryan O’Connor as Nurse Richard, Whitney Avalon as Lisa, Sadé Ayodele as Rhoda, Mitchell Johnson as Dr. Jafar Berensteiner, Jason Ryan as The Minister, and Gabi Van Horn as Nurse Nancy and the Waitress.

The design team includes scenic design by Stephen Gifford, lighting by Matt Richter, costumes by Allison Dillard, sound by M. Glenn Schuster, and properties by Michael O’Hara. The casting director is Jami Rudofsky, Amy Rowell is the production stage manager, and Nathaniel Mathis is the producer.

The remaining opportunities to catch A New Brain are as follows: Thurs., June 22 at 8 p.m. (Pay What You Choose), Fri., June 23 at 8 p.m. (Trans/Nonbinary Affinity Night—Pay What You Choose), Sat., June 24 at 2 and 8 p.m. The Davidson/Valentini Theatre at the Los Angeles LGBT Center is located at 1125 N. McCadden Place, Los Angeles 90038. Free parking for Center events is available in the garage across the street just off Santa Monica Blvd.

For tickets or further information, visit www.lalgbtcenter.org/tickets. A promo video for the show can be viewed here.

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Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon, People’s World Cultural Editor, wrote a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein and co-authored composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography. He has received numerous awards for his People's World writing from the International Labor Communications Association. He has translated all nine books of fiction by Manuel Tiago (pseudonym for Álvaro Cunhal) from Portuguese, available from International Publishers NY.