Review: A New Brain at Class Act Productions
by Gail Burns and Larry Murray
For the Berkshire-Capital region’s most comprehensive listing of theatre offerings visit GailSez.org
Larry Murray: Gail, it finally happened. I’m speechless, and believe it or not, maybe even a little verklempt.
Larry: It’s just that A New Brain is so good I can’t believe we hit the jackpot.
Gail: You mean deciding to make the trip to the Meader Little Theatre in Troy? Or finally seeing something by Class Act Productions. Either way we lucked out.
Larry: So you agree we stumbled on a real winner?
Gail: It’s only the best show I’ve seen in months…
Larry: So let’s tell our friends about why seeing this musical was important to us and the talented ensemble of Albany area actors who have made it special.
Gail: Having now seen all three of Finn’s major works, I recognize his amazing ability to take everyday events and make them both universal and very, very funny. A New Brain is written – and Finn did both music and lyrics here – from the loopy sideways perspective of someone whose brain is not functioning in the way we consider “normal.” The result is fantastic flights of musical and lyrical fantasy that just stand reality on its ear and make you laugh and cry at the same time. Finn runs through just about every musical style and genre in this non-stop 90 minute show – beautiful and touching ballads, solos that establish character and move the plot briskly along, hilarious ensemble numbers where the nine voices of the cast mix and mingle in astonishing combinations.
Larry: Bill Finn says the show is not the story of his life, but seeing it, he’s right there in it. He had arteriovenous malformation, or AVM, in his brain stem. In September, 1992, he had Gamma Knife surgery on the twisted artery. Afterwards he experienced an explosion of creativity. So it can be forgiven if some people take the whole musical literally as his autobiography, his lyrics are always somewhat autobiographical.
Gail: We should make the point right up front that this is an hilariously funny show throughout, even as it deals with a medical crisis.
Larry:The characters he created are wonderful, including Finn’s “twin” who was given the name of Gordon Schwinn (Shawn Hahn) in the play. Gordon was standing in for him, and Roger (William H. Harrison) as his partner. Hahn’s opening number “The Spring Song” has to be the strongest opening song I have heard in a long time. As Hahn developed his character, he left no doubt that we were watching a major talent at work. If only a touch less affecting, Harrison’s Roger really worked for me as well, with the popular cabaret tune “I’d Rather Be Sailing” being the most touching.
Then there was the juicy part Jeffrey Hacking had as Nurse Richard. You know how male nurses are always thought to be stereotypically gay…
Gail: …and that’s exactly how he made this part absolutely his. It was just one hilarious encounter after another.
Larry: I loved the sponge bath sequence.
Gail: And that fabulous Fritos-Doritos frock just has to be seen to be believed. What did you think of Lisa (Joy Perret) the bag lady? I think she really nailed it.
Larry: Isn’t that the truth. Did you notice that when we arrived she was quietly sitting in front of the theatre with her shopping cart filled with stuff for the show? I thought she was a real homeless person, and felt a bit sad, and then just as we were getting to our seats there she was, rolling her cart into the theatre. “That’s the darndest ticket buyer I have ever seen in a theatre,” I thought only to find out she was part of the show. And when she belted out her solo, “Change” she came right into the audience and hit me up for spare change. Hilarious. Director Michael C. Mensching sure fooled me on that one. Clever guy, and one of the great moments of the show. Who did I forget?
Gail: Matthew Streifert as the Minister, and the whole supporting cast, all of whom were uniformly wonderful.
Larry: My one complaint is that Joan Horgan, as Gordon’s mother, Mimi, was a bit lightweight voicewise, though her acting was top notch. I didn’t catch all the lyrics when she sang but I would rather have a sweet light voice like hers than one that is over-amplified. She really did a fine job on both “Throw it Out” where the books hit the floor in perfect sync with the band, and her cabaret number, “The Music Plays On”.
Gail: That last song really touched me. The tears welled up in my eyes because the lyrics meant so much, and she sang them perfectly.
You know, Larry, I became a theatre critic in part to continue to experience that amazing feeling you get when you see a terrific show. It is an addictive high and I spend my days and night going from theatre to theatre in search of it. Five minutes into Class Act Productions’ A New Brain and I knew I had found it. Great show, terrific cast, superb direction.
Larry: It doesn’t take much to make you a happy girl, but I agree, those magic moments are few and far between. Let’s hope people sell out this show this holiday weekend.
Until now, A New Brainwas only the name of a show in Bill Finn’s biography. Why do you suppose it isn’t done that often…is it the hospital setting, or the gay characters, or maybe the fact that one of the most impressive people in the cast is the street person who pushes a shopping cart around…it’s inexplicable that it’s not really well known by even theatre people.
Gail: It’s hard to figure. With a small cast, flexible set requirements, and terrific songs for everyone it should be done by just about every company, everywhere. I would hate to think it is because the central character is a gay man in a loving monogamous relationship.
Larry: Maybe that’s because people think they can’t identify with two guys, and there isn’t even a suggestion of politics.
Gail: This is a show about brain surgery in any case, not sex, and I think we need more depictions of the every day in gay relationships – although nothing is “every day” when one partner is facing a life-threatening medical condition.
Larry: And let’s not forget the music, the great three piece band that was on stage with the cast. Led by Valerie A. Lord on keyboards, and with Richard LaPlante as keeper of the beat, and Thomas Gerbino on reeds, they were just perfect.
Going back to the director,Michael Menshing, isn’t he one of the best in the Albany area? In fact, I am beginning to recognize some of the area players from our trips to the Cohoes Music Hall and and Hubbard Hall. Why don’t we hear more about them? I know that our articles are picked up by Nippertown, yet it seems to me that there is hit or miss coverage for the others. So many of the cast members names were new to me.
Gail: Well their names are familiar to me because I’ve posted press releases and audition notices and linked to capital region reviews for so many years on GailSez.org. I knew when I saw the press release for this show that there were some top-notch people involved, which is one reason I suggested we add it to our schedule.
Larry: I would love to cover more of the Albany shows, but it is a trek from the Berkshires, and fine for once or twice a month, but not several times a week.
Gail: If Scotty could just beam us from one place to another, it would be possible to cover more theatre in the tri-city area. Perhaps there is a budding critic out there.
Larry: That’s a good idea, let’s see if we can entice one to come forward.
Gail: Our pay is lousy.
Larry: But the rewards are many. Tell me more about the regional scene.
Gail: From what I can see, the Capital region theatre scene, which is vibrant and busy year round, doesn’t really have reliable consistent media coverage or any real political/community champions that I can see. Our colleagues Bob Goepfert, who writes for the Troy Record and the Saratogian, and Michael Eck, who writes for the Albany Times-Union, each do a great job, but they are covering the capital region AND the Berkshires and there is just so much one person can do and just so much ink newspapers can devote to the arts in these perilous times. Actor Patrick White has been doing a good job on Facebook with his Cover Theatre page promoting productions and advocating for better theatre coverage in the Albany area.
Larry: Well that leaves just one more thing to talk about.
Gail: What did we forget?
Larry: Dishing today’s wardrobe choice. You started our collaboration as a newly upholstered floral settee and as a tie-dye princess, but you were sort of blending in today. There’s not enough sparkle there to throw a quip at.
Gail: We have had some fun at the expense of MY wardrobe so far this season, but here the “best dressed” award has to go to Jeffrey Hocking as Richard, the Nice Nurse. I had been promised a chance to see Hocking in drag, and as the show went on and he appeared in scene after scene in pink scrubs and crocs I felt decidedly cheated. But then he emerged for his fantasy solo “Eating Myself Up Alive” in this astonishing dress conceived by Michael Mensching and executed by Becky Straight and all was forgiven. We both agree that it would look smashing on me and I have let Mr. Hocking know that I expect delivery after closing night, although he is hedging and muttering something about auctioning it off for charity. (Shall I change my name to Charity??) Larry, shall we tell our readers what the dress was made out of? Or shall we let it be a surprise?
Larry: So maybe he should give that garment to you. Oh what joy, what glee would greet you in such a number…I say, let the readers find out for themselves, that will be surprise enough. Anyone who loves clever, whacky musicals will enjoy this show, and once they see it, they will know exactly what costume we are gushing about.
So, readers, you have your recommendation – go see A New Brain!
Class Act Productions presents William Finn’s A New Brain May 18-20 and 24-27, 2012, at the James L. Meader Little Theatre, Corner of Division and Front Street, Troy, NY. Director – Michael C. Mensching, Choreographer – Melissa Mason, Producer – Michael McDermott, Costumes – Debbie Lummis, Stage Manager – Matthew Perret. Cast: Shawn Hahn, Joy Perret, Jennifer Payeur, Alana Streifert, Bill Depew, Jeffrey Hocking, Peter C. Lacijan, Matthew Streifert, William H. Harrison, Joan Horgan. Orchestra: Valerie A. Lord, Richard LaPlante, Thomas Gerbino. Tickets: Call 248-2618 .