'A New Brain' treats life's tragic moments with music, humor

10:05:24 AM CDT - Thursday, April 21, 2005

By Shannon Littlejohn

When the School of Performing Arts Second Stage series presents Tony award-winner William Finn's latest work, "A New Brain," in collaboration with Wichita State's opera and music theater program, it will bring both the campus and the larger community a regional premiere of a work receiving national acclaim.

"A New Brain," which will make its local debut this month at the Welsbacher Theatre, is a musical treatment of Finn's own journey into crisis, fear and recovery.

Finn's resulting musical affirms what critics raved about when Finn produced his Falsettos trilogy, a tragicomedy based on family relationships in the early years of AIDS that won him two Tony awards. According to one critic, Finn is "an original who creates identifiable characters smart enough to be foolish and human enough to break."

Finn's encounter with an inoperable brain tumor provided him with one of humankind's ultimate experiences: fear of dying.

"It's a 90-minute chamber musical that touches the heart," said Marie King, director of opera and music theater for WSU.

In "A New Brain," Gordon Schwinn (an obvious play on "Finn") is a composer who cranks out hack tunes for a children's television show. He collapses suddenly and winds up in the hospital surrounded by a cast of odd characters including his lover, Roger; his determined mother; the hospital staff; a homeless lady; and the television personality Mr. Bungee, who wears a frog costume.

Mr. Bungee becomes a gleeful and tyrannical tormentor in Gordon's hallucinatory dreams, and his waking hours are not much better as he mourns the songs he believes he will never write. But Gordon struggles to survive and eventually recovers amid a dawning appreciation of what it means to be fully alive.

As with the Falsettos trilogy, "New Brain" critics have raved about Finn's ability to mix lightness and darkness into his characters and plot. "Finn has created a tuneful and highly entertaining musical with a relentlessly optimistic spirit," according to the Chicago Tribune. "Filled with cunning lyrics and moving score, 'A New Brain' brings out the humor and joy that co-exist even the darkest moments of our lives," says Chicago's Porchlight Theatre review. "Nobody since Leonard Bernstein has captured American vernacular speech rhythms with such precision as Finn," writes USA Today.

Linda Starkey, associate director of the opera and music theater program, will direct, with music direction by Phillip Taylor and choreography by Maria Tate, both WSU students. The student cast features Javier Perez-Gomez as Gordon, Stephen Hitchcock as Roger, and Jen Beuchter as Gordon's mother, Mimi. Other students in the cast are Katie Riggs, Leah Swank, Cara Fish, Taurean Everett, Aaron Glover, Cory Taves and Casey Ross.

"A New Brain" will begin at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, April 27, and run through 2 p.m. Sunday, May 1, at the Welsbacher Theatre in the Hughes Metropolitan Complex, 5015 E. 29th St. N. Evening performances will be at 7:30 p.m., with matinees at 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Tickets are $10 with discounts available through the College of Fine Arts Box Office, 978-3233.

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