BWW Reviews: STAGEright's A NEW BRAIN Feels Undercooked
William Finn's shows are not easy to produce. Maybe that's why (with the exception of Spelling Bee) they're not done as often as they deserve. And his largely autobiographical "A New Brain" is no exception with its emotional storyline and rich score not to mention some odd staging elements it requires. So if you're going to produce it you'd better have all your ducks in a row. Well all of the ducks are there for the current production from STAGEright now performing at the Cornish Playhouse Black Box but some of them didn't quite stay in that row.
Finn has often drawn from his own personal experiences for his shows but never more so than this one which draws from his own dealings with arteriovenous malformation, an abnormal connection between arteries and veins in his brain, which the main character Gordon (Daniel Stoltenberg) also suffers from. In the show Gordon works for kids TV personality Mr. Bungee (Matt Giles), an impatient tyrant dressed as a frog. But while discussing the latest demand from Bungee with his agent Rhoda (Meg McLynn) he loses coherence and passes out. Once in the hospital they discover the malformation and while going through the treatment, Gordon is surrounded by both real and imagined scenarios involving his lover Roger (Justin Wright Carrell), his Mother Mimi (Susan Connors), Rhoda, Bungee as well as the hospital staff and one quite wise homeless woman (Shermona Mitchell).
Director Zandi Carlson keeps a good pace for the show but some choices (especially at the opening and closing of the show) felt clunky and confusing. The cast does well when in the larger group numbers but some of the more solitary moments fall flat. Stoltenberg and Carrell are likable as a couple but didn't always feel together. Individually Stoltenberg retained a little too static and angry a character throughout and didn't quite have the vocal prowess needed for the quieter solo bits. And Carrell managed a stronger voice but felt too presentational in his delivery.
However there were some wonderful elements from the supporting cast. McLynn and Connors each have some fun and engaging turns with their solo pieces as did Andrew Eric Davison as Richard the Nice Nurse and David Caldwell as the Minister who acts as a kind of narrator of the piece. But the standouts had to be Mitchell and Giles who took ahold of their supporting roles and ran away with them. Mitchell has a powerhouse of a voice and infuses her numbers with tons of intent. And Giles plays up Bungee to hilarious effect as one minute he turns in a manic and slightly crazed kids character and the next an autocratic bastard.
All told the show tries really hard but never quite gets a solid footing on the story or tone and just felt like it needed some more rehearsal time. With my three letter rating system I would give this a MEH which is a shame since this seldom produced show deserves more.
"A New Brain" from STAGEright performs at the Cornish Playhouse Black Box through May 17th. For tickets or information visit them online at www.seattlestageright.org.