'New Brain': An uneven ride, with great highs

Cast of "A New Brain" at Theatre Horizon (left to right): Melissa Joy Hart, Peter Carrier, Steve Pacek, Susan Riley Stevens, Rachel Camp, Larry Lees; and (seated, left to right:) Rob Tucker and Mina Kawahara.

N ow playing at Theatre Horizon in Norristown, A New Brain is an autobiographical musical comedy written by Tony Award winners William Finn (The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee) and James Lapine (Into the Woods) that explores one man's response to a life-threatening medical diagnosis. The 1998 play based on Finn's own experience of finding out that he had a potentially deadly "arteriovenous malformation" - a tangle of blood vessels - in his brain, and having little choice but to go through a risky neurosurgery to save his life.

Contemplating the possibility of a sudden end, struggling composer Gordon (played by Steve Pacek) laments all the songs he never had a chance to write. He complains about wasting his talent "writing songs for frogs" (he is a composer of jejune melodies for a children's television show called Mr. Bungee's Lily Pad). In Gordon's imagination, Mr. Bungee the Frog personifies all of his fears and shortcomings. Lithely played by Doug Hara, Bungee turns out to be a welcome character - his joyfully mean presence lends a slight edge to what is mostly a blunt touch.

The 95-minute show without intermission is almost entirely sung through and came off as an uneven ride. At times the lyrics and tone were too heavy with the inspirational message: Seize the day, don't delay another moment in pursuing our dreams.

Yet there are delightful crescendos. Two scenes go over the top in a spectacular way: the nautical MRI journey of "Sitting Becalmed in the Lee of Cuttyhunk," and the standout composition within the coma sequence, "Eating Myself Alive." In these two scenes, the entire ensemble comes together and absolutely fills the theater space to the brim with song.

Two of the most poignant moments belong to Gordon's mother (Susan Riley Stevens). The first is the parting from the bedside of a loved one in the hospital, expressing with warm conviction that, on the night before the big surgery, she parts in hope rather than sorrow. In the second, facing the audience alone, she acknowledges the very real possibility of loss, and that even after a death or after love comes to an end, the music still plays on, indifferent to what the living has lost.

This production features a solid ensemble cast with Peter Carrier, Melissa Joy Hart, Larry Lees, Rob Tucker, and Theatre Horizon returning favorite Rachel Camp, along with the Philly professional stage debuts of Christian Eason and Mina Kawahara.