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BWW Exclusive: A NEW BRAIN in Melbourne

A New Brain is one of William Finn's many exquisite musical theatre works. While generally not mainstream, his shows have an edge that makes them confronting and rewarding. This is a point that was not lost on Phill Scanlon, who is currently producing a version of A New Brain that will play at the Doncaster Playhouse from September 12. Scanlon is no stranger to the work of William Finn, having previously worked as Musical Director on a production of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (Fab Nobs Theatre Company), and he notes the intricacies and challenges in performing the music penned by Finn, with this making it "a joy to do and so rewarding."

Despite the works of Finn being less than mainstream, both Scanlon and Director Hayley Wood note the inherent beauty in the piece of work. Wood observes that it "is not a really well known musical...[but it is] a story that should be told. It's a story where we look at the healing power of music someone can get through a hard time in their life by tapping into their creativity." These deeply personal themes render a beautiful and touching narrative that is seemingly perfect for the stage.


A New Brain is an autobiographical show that tells the story of William Finn and his experience with arteriovenous malformation, a condition that saw him go under the surgeon's knife in 1992 for brain surgery. This theme of altering the brain seemingly lends itself well to the stage, with several dream sequences being included in the telling of Finn's story, a point noted by both the show's producer Phill Scanlon and choreographer Natasha Harvey. Such a structure means that it lends itself to audience creativity and imagination in interpreting the story and songs. Harvey also commented that the nature of the show means the choreography is subtle in nature, being notably less reliant on the big dance sequences that can be a common event in many musicals.

Harvey's choreography promises to be interesting, since she is totally new to the story and brings a fresh dimension to its interpretation. Consistent with the sentiments of Scanlon, Harvey comments that the script, in places, can be "very unexpected, very fun, very funny."

The inherently personal nature of the story also means that any presentation of the show must rely on the substance of the characters, as opposed to glamorous and distracting sets. This is a point noted by Scanlon, Wood and Harvey. Wood observes that being "minimal" with the set design has allowed for the songs and characters to tell the story and be the main focus, with this being something that she was conscious of in her direction of the production.

There is no doubting the natural affection that Scanlon has for the show, describing it as "a rare gem" with "just of a kind" music. Since he acquired the rights to the show just over twelve months ago Scanlon has embarked on his maiden journey as a producer, something that he describes as "a bit of a rollercoaster," but one in which he has seemingly enjoyed both the ride and broadened perspective of the theatre process it offered when compared to his previous performing work. Casting occurred in February and March this year, with Alex McInnes (Doctor) the last of the cast members to be finalized in the company of ten performers. Scanlon is high in praise for the entire company but did reserve a specific mention for his lead, Will Sayers, who "just blew us away" at auditions and was cast in the role of Gordon.

Sayers dryly observes that Gordon is an unintentional jerk, a trait that makes him both loveable and loathsome at various times. These opposing terms of endearment draw on Sayers' acting skills, in order to successfully navigate the emotional complexity that the role of Gordon represents. Phill Scanlon mentioned on multiple occasions the depth to this show and Sayers echoed this sentiment. Sayers remarked that despite being familiar with the score and the soundtrack, it was not until the cast sat down and worked through the piece that the complexities and depth of the story fully emerged.

Sayers' favourite point in his character's path comes towards the end of the show, during the song "Time". At this point in the show the self-realisations are beginning to consolidate and for Gordon it is a crystalisation of his previous experiences and challenges. Scanlon also observes that his favourite moment in the show is the conclusion, which he describes as "beautiful, of the awww moments [that] can be quite an emotional part of the show." Given the punch that is set to be delivered in the final scenes the decision to not have an interval seems well guided, keeping the audience on the journey without interruption or distraction.

A New Brain opens on 12 September at the Doncaster Playhouse, with the show running for around ninety minutes with no interval. While it may not be a mainstream bold and brassy theatre production, A New Brain offers some beautiful songs and a story line that is touching for its humanity and self-reflection.

The Cast of A NEW BRAIN
Gordon - Will Sayers; Roger - Brad Ericson; Mimi - Wendy Alberni; Homeless Lady - Marnie Higgs; Rhoda - Sarah Somers; Mr Bungy - Trent Bockman; Waitress/Nancy - Kate Spruce; Minister - Nick Rouse; Richard - Sean Pocock; Doctor - Alex McInnes

Director: Hayley Wood, Musical Director: Phill Scanlon, Choreographer: Natasha Harvey, Production Manager: Michael Fertnig

WHEN: September 12, 13, 15, 17, 18, 19 - 8pm; September 20 5pm
WHERE: Doncaster Playhouse, 679 Doncaster Road, Doncaster, Victoria 3108
SHOW LENGTH: 90 minutes, no interval

IMAGE CREDIT: Image provided by Phill Scanlon

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