BWW Review: The 5 & Dime's A NEW BRAIN Exudes Heart And Music

"Heart and music make a song," is almost as true as it gets. I've belted this melody in my car, in the shower, and at late night karaoke bars where the audience thinks I'm that weird person who only sings songs from musicals (spoiler: they are not wrong). I've carried this almost-truth with me since my junior year of high school, when my friend Alicia introduced me to William Finn and James Lapine's A NEW BRAIN. Critically received with apprehensive acclamation in New York, A NEW BRAIN was considered fun and touching, but far too personal for the audience to truly connect with. Is something missing from Lapine's assertion that "Heart and music make a song"? You'll want to come down to The 5 and Dime Theatre's production of A NEW BRAIN, running through May 7th, to find out. Trust me when I say it is worth satisfying your curiosity.

For those who need more convincing, A NEW BRAIN tells the story of Gordon Schwinn, a composer with a never-ending list of deadlines for the children's television show he writes music and lyrics for. Things are not going well, and Gordon falls face down into his lunch one afternoon, only to be rushed to the hospital where he is given an MRI and learns he has a life-threatening brain condition. Following an invasive operation, Gordon slips into a coma, where he hallucinates a musical within a musical starring his real-life friends and family. I'll keep the ending to myself...and instead will spend the rest of our time together gushing over this incredible production, directed by Ron Shreve.

It takes a lot to get everything right, and in the world of live theatre, it's nearly impossible to get everything right. The 5 and Dime currently has a pesky little pillar that's holding up their stage...and while they are working hard to get it down, it's up for now. If you grab a seat on the right (aka: stage left), you'll never miss a beat - in fact, that pillar acts as a wonderful set piece at least three times in the show. However, for those that roll in a bit later or miss the correlation, you also might miss a few fantastic moments, and that's unfortunate, but not a deal breaker by any means.

Ron Shreve's vision for this show is stunningly complimented by Erin Barnes' musical direction. Intricately staged, every movement is purposeful to the story. The acoustics at The 5 and Dime are swell, and this cast of ten posesses a full, awe-inspiring sound. Rarely a missed note was uttered, and not once did I catch an early execution of a line. With intentional care, Austin Kelm deserves special recognition for his pristine lighting design. I found myself catching my breath because of his solid interpretations of special moments.

This jaw-dropping cast, comprised of the finest in northeast Florida (and beyond, honestly), features the tender but snarky presence of Daniel Austin as Roger and the fiery, no-nonsense delivery of IsabElla Martinez as Rhoda. In a complicated maternal role, I found Amy Allen Farmer to nail not only the character, but additionally the difficult vocal requirements of Mimi Schwinn, Gordon's mother. Rob Banks' comedic timing accompanied by his chastising frog puppet brings a new level of sardonic glee to the already dark yet semi-redeemed role of Mr. Bungee. Katie Swider-McCloskey will leave you running to fill her character's collection bucket with spare coins as her thrilling voice and powerful eyes pierce your soul with unsettling accuracy.

Have you ever had the honor of seeing a show with its original cast? Did you see Idina as Elpheba, Colm as Valjean, or Lin as Hamilton? Originating a role allows an actor the freedom to define a character. Critics may have initially heralded A NEW BRAIN as missing a connection with its audience, but that is because they were not privileged to see Josh Waller lead as Gordon Schwinn. Gordon is a heartbreakingly relatable character, thanks to Josh's honest execution. He is stuck in a job he hates, facing deadline after deadline. His boyfriend would much rather sail than sit at his side, and his genetics are less than favorable. His mother is a borderline nag and his nurses are made of the stuff from nightmares. Josh absolutely stuns in his portrayal of Gordon, his misfortunes and successes alike. He oozes fear that is ultimately trumped by hope because of the love of his bent but deeply invested family and friends. He transcends the art of performance as he engages intensely with everyone sharing the stage, while allowing the audience to feel that they matter and are integral to his story.

A NEW BRAIN will cause outbursts of laughter. A NEW BRAIN will offer unexpected tears. I hardly ever see a production more than once, but I'll be seeing this one again, and I truly want to share it with each of you. A NEW BRAIN runs through May 7th at The 5 and Dime Theatre. Tickets are available at The 5 and Dime, but get them quick - this one is sure to sell out! Go, and feel so much spring.

Photo credit: Maya Adkins

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From This Author Heather Vollman

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