When I first read about “A New Brain,” I thought the concept seemed absurd. An autobiographical show about a composer who suffers a chronic brain injury before a deadline for a show he’s writing, and that involves a humanized frog? I couldn’t imagine how it would unfold.
The Department of Musical Theatre’s Studio Production of “A New Brain” easily put my concerns to rest. It was a simple, humorous and compelling rendition of the work. It was exactly what I’d hope for in a studio production: Minimal staging and costume, yet entertainment nonetheless.
The humorous tone was quickly established in the beginning of the show, as the main character’s order at a restaurant turns into a quirky song about restaurant food. This dualism between the characters experiencing and commenting on the plot continues throughout.
When the main character, Gordon Michael Schwinn, played by SMTD junior Jack Mastrianni, collapses at the restaurant and is rushed to the hospital, the ensemble made up for the limited props and lighting in this studio production. From an ensemble member running around with a flashing headlamp (to represent an ambulance) to two curtained dividers constantly being wheeled around the stage, this work had a decidedly modest feel.
This simplicity allowed for some simple interjections of humor. A drill being held aloft by the doctor, SMTD senior Hugh Entrekin, during the operation scene, for example, added to what was otherwise a rather frightening scene of a man going into a chronic brain procedure. The doctor’s medical posters had a humorous, lightening effect, especially when simple smiley and frowning faces at the bottom of these posters were meant to signify the life-altering nature of these procedures.
The show featured Schwinn’s latest musical composition — a musical for children hosted by a man named Mr. Bungee, played by SMTD junior Matthew Sanguine, who dresses in a green sports jacket and frog hat. Bungee exists as both a personification of Schwinn’s artistic work and as a character in his own right, demanding that Schwinn make his composition deadline despite his hospitalization.
Besides Bungee, many of the other characters integral to Schwinn’s life exhibit easily identifiable stereotypes taken to absurd extremes. There was the main character’s boyfriend, SMTD junior Luke Bove, a man so obsessed with sailing that he can’t cut his vacation short to make Schwinn’s surgery. And there was the main character’s mother, played by SMTD senior Madeline Eaton, a doting figure who gifts her adult son with a teddy bear and spoon-feeds him in an attempt to help him recover.
The hospital workers, too, represent a few key medical stereotypes. The operating doctor cannot help but react with excitement to every brain injury. At one point, as he learns of a chronically injured patient on another floor, he eagerly fist bumps Schwinn. The two nurses represent the two ends of the nursing spectrum: One pampers Schwinn, while the other frequently criticizes him.
One of the funniest moments in the show came right before Schwinn’s operation, as the nurses asked him about his family medical history. The ensuing song, “Gordo’s Law of Genetics,” pontificates on the genetic dominance of unfavorable traits. “Smart or dumb / dumb will predominate,” the ensemble sings. “Fat or thin / The fat will predominate.”
The choreography in this song accentuated the humor, the lines about “fat or thin” accompanied by an imaginary rounded-stomach gesture. This was not particularly outrageous humor but it was intelligent, unpredictable and incredibly well-executed. It wasn’t meant to offend or to moralize, but it was smart and engaging.
I left the theater impressed with the Department of Musical Theatre, the writing of James Lapine and the music, lyrics and story of composer William Flinn. It was amusing and entertaining, and for a studio show, if not a general University production, what more can one ask?