A New Brain
at Plays & Players is a rare thing: sophisticated contemporary musical theater that's also a feel-good, chock-full-of-songs show. With a wildly talented cast under Daniel Student's imaginative direction, this show is not to be missed.
William Finn (best known for Falsettos) used his own story to write this sung-through musical about a songwriter, here called Gordon (the superb Brendan Norton) who suddenly collapses into a plate of pasta from a brain defect. He is unlikely to survive the high-risk surgery, and his mother (Susan Ilene Johnson), his preppy lover (Dan Plehal), and his friend (Sara Schmuckler) gather at his bedside in the hospital.
Outside the hospital is a homeless woman (Jennifer Ann Hutten), who sings a lyric that could be the world's theme: "We live in perilous times." Inside the hospital are the hilariously pompous doctor (Joe Sabatino), the barking-up-the-wrong-tree priest (Eric Longo), the mean nurse (the terrific Grace Field), and the nice nurse (the equally terrific Jason Stockdale).
Hovering over the scene - inside and outside Gordon's damaged brain - is a horrifying frog named Mr. Bungee (Rob Cutler, as human and puppet), a children's TV character. Gordon has been wasting his talent on the awful songs he's composing for the awful Mr. Bungee, knowing his best work is still unwritten - if only he had the time.
As a gay couple, Gordon and Roger are inspiring, so seemingly unsuited and so in love. Roger's song, "I'd Rather Be Sailing" segues into a complex metaphor: the MRI Gordon faces and Roger's late arrival because his sailboat was becalmed. There is a very funny Titanic moment (if you blink, you miss it; nothing is overplayed) and a deeply moving song, "Just Go." There is a gospel song about genetics (". . . It's a simple fact of science/Don't rely on self reliance . . ." - the entire show rhymes) and a sensational "Brain Dead" tango that begins the bizarre nightmare in Gordon's comatose brain.
All of this extravaganza - lightning-fast costume and makeup changes, a live band, fugue songs that replicate the brain's fugue state, ventriloquist acts - happens while we audience members sit on chairs on the Plays & Players stage. This creates an intimate performance space, and the surprising simplicity of producing a big musical without a set makes this a remarkable evening. Even better: All of the singers can act, and especially fine in both acting and singing is Brendan Norton in the lead.
Finally, the show's point is "Don't Give In," and the ensemble gathers to sing in the finale, "time and music make a song." This is not only true, it is gorgeously evident.
Presented by Plays & Players, 1714 Delancey St., through Jan. 29. Tickets: $25-30. Information: 800-595-4TIX or www.playsandplayers.org