CD Review: A NEW BRAIN (2015 New York Cast Recording on PS Classics)

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by Tony Frankel on February 15, 2016



When A New Brain opened at Lincoln Center in 1998, I couldn’t understand why the reviews were so higgledy-piggledy. True, I hadn’t actually seen the production, but the original cast recording had me hooked. William Finn, composer/lyricist of the quirky, poignant Falsettos and the light-hearted The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, once again proves why he is one of our best writers with catchy, melodic melodies and meticulous rhymes. With book by frequent co-librettist James Lapine, the sung-through musical has an underlying strength that is life-affirming. But in the two productions I have seen, A New Brain came off as either a psuedo-song cycle or a cabaret, and lacked an arc.

The New Brain New York City Center Music and Lyrics by William Finn Book by William Finn and James Lapine Directed by James Lapine Choreography by Josh Prince Starring Jenni Barber, Quentin Earl Darrington, Bradley Dean, Dan Fogler, Ana Gasteyer, Jonathan Groff, Josh Lamon, Aaron Lazar, Alyse Alan Louis, and Rema Webb

Then in 2013, an adjunct of Encores! (New York City Center’s famed series of concert-reading musicals) was created for those Off-Broadway musicals which are also hardly seen but deserve a second look. Artistic Director Jeanine Tesori (yes, the same who composed Caroline, or Change and Fun Home) and Encores! Off-Center spearheaded a new production of A New Brain in June, 2015, with 20 minutes of added material by the original writers, and the production injected new life into this rarely produced musical. While it still lacks a dramatic arc and fully fleshed-out characters, this version is lass brash and more heartfelt; it sounds great. The thrilling results have thankfully been preserved on a nifty 2-disc set, now out on the PS Classics label.

It was tough at first not to compare this CD, beautifully produced and mixed as it is by Jeffrey Lesser, with the original cast, which included Malcolm Gets, Penny Fuller, Mary Testa, Chip Zien and a relatively unknown Kristin Chenoweth. But this new cast — Broadway vets all — soon won me over. Aside from the newer material, the brashly original orchestrations by the great Michael Starobin, and harmonically challenging vocal arrangements by Jason Robert Brown — yes, that Mr. Brown — are 50 times clearer than the 1998 production. The arrangements for the new material — by Ted Sperling (vocals) and Josh Freilich — positively sparkle under Chris Fenwick (music supervisor) and Vadim Feichtner (music director).

Jonathan-Groff-and-Aaron-Lazar- in-A-New-Brain-photo-by-Joan-MarcusJonathan Groff (Hamilton, Spring Awakening) plays songwriter Gordon Schwinn, who has a condition which requires immediate brain surgery. Knowing he may not make it out of the hospital, Gordon is hell bent on finishing one last great song, more than spending quality time with his lover Roger (A Little Night Music‘s Aaron Lazar), mom Mimi (Saturday Night Live‘s Ana Gasteyer), or best friend Rhoda (Disaster!‘s Alyse Alan Louis). “The Spring Song,” the tune he is composing for a children’s show, “Mr. Bungee’s Lily Pad,” ultimately becomes a song of new beginnings, “I Feel So Much Spring,” a lovely tune about gratitude, simplicity and fresh beginnings. The rest of the musical contains recollections, an MRI procedure, a kooky hospital staff, a homeless woman, and frog hallucinations (the original Mr. Bungee, Dan Fogler, was unavailable at recording time, so his part is filled in by the ridiculously talented Christian Borle, two-time Tony winner for Peter and the Starcatcher and Something Rotten!).


Gordon is no longer a successful composer, but a struggling young writer trying to get ahead. As a result, Groff is far sweeter and softer than Malcolm Gets. Lazar offers a smooth “I’d Rather Be Sailing,” easily one of Finn’s greatest ballads. Fortunately, things get jolted as these two are surrounded by distinctive and powerhouse vocalists. Gastmeyer dominates beautifully, adding a new jazzy riff in “Mother’s Gonna Make Things Fine.” As a Homeless Lady, Rema Webb, who you can hear on PS Classics’ recording of the Original Broadway Cast of Violet, blasts out “Change” without resorting to any yodeling tricks; she is a pure showstopper. The best is when the entire cast is engaged in the MRI procedure (“Sitting Becalmed in the Lee of Cuttyhunk”) and Gordon’s remembrance of his dad (“And They’re Off” — below on Sound Cloud).

For CD collectors, I can’t tell you one cast is better than the other; thankfully, they are different in many good ways. The new A New Brain will assuredly suit those who are already fans, and it will make fans out of newcomers to this wholly unconventional musical.

production photos by Joan Marcus

A New Brain
New York City Center Encores! Off-Center
deluxe 2-disc set with liner notes and libretto
released February 5, 2016
for more info, visit PS Classics

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