A New Brain by William Finn and James Lapine

Dates and Venue 16 June - 21 June 2009, 8pm (matinees on 20th & 21st) | Performance Works, Granville Island

Reviewer Ed Farolan

This is the story of Gordon Schwinn, a young composer who is at a dilemma - does he continue his full time job writing music for a children's TV show, or does he pursue his dream of writing the musical he has always wanted to write? Then he's struck with a life-threatening illness. He has to make the toughest choice of all - to give up or to fight and ultimately find his 'heart and music'.

Many of Finn's musicals are to some extent autobiographical. A New Brain dealt directly with his own harrowing personal experience with arteriovenous malformation, and like this musical, he survived. His topics deal with the gay and Jewish experiences in contemporary America, and very often deal with conflict, loyalty, family, belonging, sickness, healing, and loss.

In this particular musical, Gordon is gay and has a gay lover, Roger. His Jewish mother is, as most Jewish mothers are, very controlling, and still treats him as though he were a child.

Finn did achieve his dream, and continues writing. Unlike lan Larson who died at 36 from another rare disease called Marfan Syndrome and composed only two off-broadway  musicals, Finn is still alive and has achieved his dream. He has written a number of Broadway and off-Broadway musicals and won a number of awards.

Productionwise, I think this musical by this relatively new company, Pipedream Theatre Project, was well-delivered. The actors are quite talented. I was impressed especially by the female actors: Lee McKeown (Rhoda), Sabrina Prada (Mimi Schwinn), Georgia Swinton (Waitress/Nancy D./Dance Captain), and Cathy Wilmot (Lisa). I felt they gave their all. The supporting male cast was also first-rate: Arne Larsen (Mr. Bungee), Brandon Parent (Minister), Cameron Dunster (Doctor) and Matt Hume (Richard).I felt, however, that the lead actors Tyson Coady (Roger) and Andrew Cohen (Gordon) didn't feel comfortable in their gay roles. The kissing scenes seemed artificial, and there was a lack of energy in their performance.

The set design was simple, as are all set designs now in contemporary off-Broadway-type musicals - a bare thrust stage with the orchestra conducted by Stewart Yu in an elevated area. I think the music was well played and synchronized skillfully with the song and dance numbers. Keri Minty's choreography was innovative and grabbed the attention of the audience. There was a well-deserved standing ovation for the actors and the production at the close of the company's opening night performance.

In the programme's Welcome note by the Board of Directors of the company, they asked some feedback from the audience on what we wanted to see more of. In my opinion, I think they should continue doing musicals, and I would recommend that they coordinate with Applause Musicals' Artistic Director Scott Ashton Swan and produce the shows that he's doing, ie, musicals that are rare and most often unheard of. But rather go one step further. Unlike the Applause shows which are read and not performed in toto, perhaps this company can actually do these musicals the way they're meant to be done - with no scripts in hand.

© 2009 Ed Farolan