Theater Review: A NEW BRAIN (Celebration Theatre)

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by Tony Frankel on May 20, 2023

in Theater-Los Angeles


When William Finn‘s autobiographical musical 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. I was champing at the bit to see why his wonderful songs (with book by frequent co-librettist James Lapine) went the way of the cultists. Now, because of a terrific new chamber production by Celebration Theatre, I see that — even with interrelated characters and a through-story — the musical has spotty construction, almost that of a cabaret-song-cycle. This was easily overcome by Celebration Theatre with an assemblage of bravura talent: boffo, pianist extraordinaire Gregory Nabours’ teeny-tiny band; Alli Miller-Fisher‘s imaginative choreography; and Khanisha Foster‘s deceptively simple direction; and you get a stellar offering of a rarely-seen musical. Even with some quibbles, I would hawk tickets until the place was SRO.

Amanda Kruger and The Company

The plot is simple: Songwriter Gordon Schwinn wants to compose for Broadway, but took a job writing songs for the children’s show Mr. Bungee’s Lily Pad. Unfortunately, Gordon is stressing out because of the inability to complete the “Yes” song requested by the boss, who happens to be the Mister Rogers-esque temperamental frog himself, Mr. Bungee. While at lunch with friend Rhoda, Gordon collapses and is rushed to the hospital. The brain condition discovered requires surgery, which may cause a coma or even death. (Finn was diagnosed with arteriovenous malformation, or AVM, in his brain stem in 1992.) Knowing this, Gordon is hell-bent on finishing one last great song instead of spending quality time with lover Roger or mom Mimi. The rest of the musical contains recollections, an MRI procedure, a kooky hospital staff, a homeless woman, and frog hallucinations, but not an arc.

Amanda Kruger and Gina Torrecilla

Just so I don’t bury the lede: For this production, the gay male couple Gordon and Roger have been swapped with a lesbian couple. No problem there, but you should know that Gordon is confusingly referred to by the pronoun “they.” I know this musical back and forth, but found it confounding to have “they” swapped for “she” in the lyrics. It completely changes the meaning. Ah, well, that’s our era. (Gordon’s girlfriend, still named Roger (!), is referred to as “she.”) And, last quibble, Gordon and his mother are both neurotic Jews (even mom sings “literary shmattah” in one song), but here, instead of suffocating love, we have a kinder, gentler, less pushy mom and an entirely non-hysteric Gordon sung by the lightest voice in the cast, Amanda Kruger. This casting choice dilutes one of the show’s major conflicts. I have spoken with musical theater queens who are avoiding this production for these reasons. Don’t. While these are unwise and unnecessary choices, this truly wonderful outing will win you over, even if you remain bothered by these decisions — which I was.

Sadé Ayodele

The musical’s main strength is that it is heartfelt and life-affirming — buoyed by a most loving cast. What surprised me most about Celebration’s production is that it managed to intensify the theme, which is more than enough to fuel a theater piece: it’s about getting a second chance, one that creates a new outlook on life. Finn himself acknowledges that “everything has changed, but nothing’s changed” as a result of his own brush with death. As one who was once near death, I agree with Finn’s sentiment. So, how does the composer emotionally heighten such a non-dramatic declaration at the end of the show? Gordon sings a new version of the children’s song he was trying to construct before his malady began, now entitled, “I Feel So Much Spring.” It’s a lovely tune about gratitude, simplicity and fresh beginnings.

Amanda Kruger and Yassi Noubahar

The best number in the show is the wistful ballad “I’d Rather Be Sailing,” sung by Gordon’s lover Roger; Yassi Noubahar gave the song just the right combination of restrained passion, love, and superb breath control – all fitting to this character. With an incredibly distinctive vibrato, Whitney Avalon blasted the roof off of the intimate in-the-round Davidson/Valenti Theatre as Lisa, the homeless woman who counsels Roger on the day of Gordon’s surgery. in her big number “Change,” she doesn’t want sympathy, just coins. (Finn’s double meaning was resoundingly more successful in Tony Kushner’s 2003 Caroline, or Change). Ryan O’Connor was hysterical as Richard, the hyperbolic nurse who sees himself as “Poor, Unsuccessful and Fat” (thank you for not changing it to “Low-Income, Deferred Success, and Non-Binary Plus-Sized”). O’Connor’s voice is raw, which gives credence to the fact this nurse probably complains 24/7.

Amanda Kruger and Richardson Cisneros-Jones

Richardson Cisneros-Jones was inspired as Mr. Bungee, nailing both the temperamental, pushy boss and the neighborly host of a kid’s television program — the love he exudes listening to “So Much Spring” is heartbreaking. Gina Torrecilla eschews neuroticism and controlling for plaintive suffering as Mimi, Gordon’s mom; she beautifully sings “The Music Still Plays On” a ballad about the men that come in and out of her life. Rounding out the cast were the lovely, watchable Sadé Ayodele as Rhoda, Gabi Van Horn as the bitchy nurse Nancy, Mitchell Johnson as the doctor, and Jason Ryan as the Minister, a role which is so underdeveloped that it felt like the character was created for set changes and vocal filler.

Amanda Kruger and Ryan O'Connor

I wasn’t sold on the casting of Amanda Kruger as Gordon — honestly, it feels more like stunt casting to promote an agenda than actually being right for a role (since Kruger goes by “they,” Gordon was given the same pronoun). Slight in presence and voice, Kruger nonetheless blended perfectly with the cast, and clearly acts and sings well, but we need a powerhouse in this role. (Interestingly, I also found the decision to cast Mr. Cisneros-Jones as a very non-Jew Jew in Celebration’s production of The Producers head-scratching.)

Whitney Avalon

The show is great, yes, but it is the vocals that truly soar under Nabours’ musical direction, especially those harmonies. 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”). And within the show’s frantic framework, Foster — who keeps the show moving with stunning blocking — still allowed the 95-minute one-act to breathe. Truly glorious direction.

Amanda Kruger and The Company (I mean, The Folx)

photos by Jeff Lorch Photography

A New Brain
Celebration Theatre
in association with the Los Angeles LGBT Center
Davidson/Valentini Theatre at the Los Angeles LGBT Center, 1125 N. McCadden Place
Thurs-Sat at 8; Sun at 2; ends on June 24, 2023
for tickets ($35.00), visit LALAGBT

{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

June Carryl, Board Member, Celebration Theatre May 24, 2023 at 4:04 pm

I am struggling to understand the purpose of publishing a personal attack masking as a review. You go out of your way to demean Amanda Kruger because you take issue with their pronouns; you take issue with their identity NOT the work. You deride their very existence rather than grapple with the casting choice that makes it possible to tell this story differently. You further erase and insult by calling your election to mock repeatedly and with incredible contempt a “quibble.”

In 2021, the Fountain theater cast a Jewish American woman in the titular role of AN OCTOROON .The director (who is Black) completely divorced the identity of the character from the very body and history that character inhabits, and did so without any attempt to bridge that gap. It was egregious.

Here, Celebration Theatre and the team that created this show has chosen to tell, and tell beautifully, as has Amanda, this story with full mindfulness and consciousness of the gender identity of the body in question, because, yes, doing so DOES tell a different story and does BEAUTIFULLY center an Othered self. If you take issue with our changing the story, that is certainly your right. I would beg to differ, but legit. Write about that. You didn’t. You demeaned, you insulted, you mocked *them*, then dressed it up with a bit of review-like verbiage. But insult was the heart and soul of your so-called critique.

“I” is a powerful word. So is “you.” So is “they.” Your attack, and attack it was, in a climate where lesbian, gay, queer, trans, nonbinary, and all those other identities you find so “inconvenient” are under siege signals not just as tone deaf, but is precisely and quite literally the reason Other human beings are dying. Even as I am aware right now that I am addressing you using the first and third person as I write, I cannot help wondering if you feel attacked. I further wonder, whether you would be so sanguine if I simply used whatever pronouns I saw fit in addressing you; how you would feel if I mocked *your* insistence–because inherent in your contempt is just such insistence–that I call you what *you* choose to be called?

Review the SHOW, Mr. Frankel. Amanda’s identity is not your prerogative to honor or not. Their identity is not up for debate. This is nothing less than erasure, and history is littered with the remains of those who have been subject to it. That you don’t seem to understand that makes me wonder why you even have an audience, let alone a job. Because this isn’t a review. It is an assault.


Max W May 24, 2023 at 6:12 pm

Yikes on bikes, bro. You can give an honest critique of the show without being transphobic af. Who hurt you?


Jack Levi May 24, 2023 at 6:20 pm

Very poor taste, Mr. Frankel. I value your reviews, but this take is sincerely disappointing. As a fervent reader of your work, I urge you to edit out any personal opinions of a community that you are not a part of.


Logan May 24, 2023 at 6:25 pm

Honey, no.

Gender expansiveness is not an “agenda”.

As a gay man, you should be ashamed.

Climbing to top and taking the ladder with you.


Anonymous May 24, 2023 at 6:29 pm

Wow, what a hot, fresh perspective. The GOP called: they want their phrase back.

“Agenda”?? Did you forget who you are?


Kofi Washington May 24, 2023 at 6:33 pm

When Hitler went after the gays, he went for trans people first.


Emily T May 24, 2023 at 6:39 pm

You can’t understand singular “they”? You probably shouldn’t be a writer then.


Michael M. Landman-Karny May 24, 2023 at 7:03 pm

The review clearly states Tony’s opinion that Amanda Kruger was miscast in the role. Tony felt that a powerhouse performer should have been cast as Gordon. There are plenty of queer performers who could fit that bill— Lea DeLaria, for instance.

Tony found the pronoun usage in the revised script to be confusing. He did not attack anybody’s pronoun or gender expression. He also RECOMMENDED the show.


Anonymous May 24, 2023 at 11:43 pm

Well said, Michael. As a queer person myself, even I am too afraid of the shrieking mob to simply voice basic reason. Dissent is not allowed. I’m so sick of queerness being co-opted by people who love the sanctimonious sound of their own voice. Amanda was not harmed by Tony voicing he found the pronouns confusing and not an ideal choice for the piece. WHILE HE RECOMMENDED THE PRODUCTION. No one was erased by that. The absurdly hyperbolic whining coming from my supposed queer allies turns the stomach of this queer person. And many, many more like me who have HAD IT with vocal-but-totally-insane minority among the minority. If your whining doesn’t land with this younger queer person, and the silent majority like me, imagine how it lands elsewhere. You can’t just shout nonsense and trust that shouting as a mob makes it valid. And for the record, to your average theatergoer, singular “they” IS confusing. That doesn’t mean someone’s trying to take your pronoun away. It’s new and it’s foreign to most. And now every time your everyday American hears someone is trans or nonbinary, or any variety of LGBTQ person, thanks to this very brand of utter crap, most Americans flinch and prepare to be shouted at. You’ve made the divide so much wider. You’ve not reasoned. You’ve not even ALLOWED engagement. You just shout and rail and people to shut up. Because they don’t want the punishment you’ll try to exact them for failing to adhere to your new rules. Now when America hears “queer,” they hear your lot shouting at them. Thanks a million.


Norman Simmons May 25, 2023 at 1:10 pm

Here’s why people are upset, Michael Landman-Karny:

Tony writes, “For this production, the gay male couple Gordon and Roger have been swapped with a lesbian couple.”

This is Tony’s first mistake, as Gordon and Roger are not a lesbian couple since Gordon is nonbinary. Right away, Tony reveals his ignorance of what being nonbinary means.

Tony then writes, “Gordon is confusingly referred to by the pronoun ‘they.’” This too reveals Tony’s ignorance. He seems not to understand that the pronoun “they” is the appropriate one to use when referring to a non-binary person. “They” is not, as Tony states, “swapped” for “she.” Since Gordon is nonbinary, identifying them as “she” is transphobic, and to quip dismissively “Ah, well, that’s our era” only adds insult to injury.

Tony’s ignorance of what nonbinary means is further illustrated when he remarks that “Gordon’s girlfriend, still named Roger (!), is referred to as ‘she.” Tony doesn’t get that Roger, unlike Gordon, identifies as female, and therefore “she” is the appropriate way to describe her.

I will admit that the use of “they” can be confusing in a sentence like “I was talking to Gordon and Roger and they said they weren’t happy with their relationship” (does they mean Gordon only or both of them?) but that’s an entirely different matter.

Tony needs to educate himself about what it means to be nonbinary. Gordon is not a woman. Gordon is not a lesbian. Gordon is a nonbinary person in a relationship with a woman.

Until that day, he’d do better not to write about things he does not understand.

Even a positive review does not excuse ignorance.


Michael M. Landman-Karny May 25, 2023 at 2:32 pm


How was Tony supposed to know that the character of Gordon has been reconceived as a non-binary person in relationship with a woman and not a lesbian? There is nothing about the show about the character being non-binary. The reviewer is there to watch what is taking place on stage. The use of “they” is confusing to an audience.


Ralph M. May 25, 2023 at 3:16 pm

You are incorrect, Norman. “They” is not just for non-binary. I use “they” as a pronoun, yet I am not non-binary. I’m all man!


Anonymous May 25, 2023 at 6:45 pm

I am a press rep who handles many shows in Los Angeles. All I want to say is, who are these people?! Any of my shows should be so lucky as to get a review like Tony’s.


JK May 25, 2023 at 8:08 pm


All you had to do was review the show: which apparently you LIKED. But you confusingly used it as a launchpad for some really strange, transphobic rant. Super interesting to see some self-identifying liberals here in the comments echoing your ignorance: if your conception of gender identity is light years behind and your “support” for the LGBTQIA+ community doesn’t include EVERY identity in that umbrella, you aren’t much better than the folks on the other side of the aisle.

There are pieces of research, articles, and personal stories from trans and non-binary folks that you could have looked at to educate yourself before writing this review. Instead, you chose to hatefully prattle on about an “agenda” and your inability to comprehend pronouns. Ignorance at its worst. Be better, or else leave review writing to people who are actually putting in the work to know what they’re talking about.


Andrew May 25, 2023 at 11:45 pm

A press rep who’d rather keep their anonymity is a coward. You’re blaming queer people for their oppression and don’t even have the courage to put a name to your opinion.

In a world where trans children in Florida are being taken from their parents for receiving gender affirming care, “dissent” is abuse.

Enjoy being one of the “palatable” queers. At least your rights will be the last to go.


Heidi Powers May 28, 2023 at 8:10 am

It’s incredible how someone who is part of an “othered” community can so swiftly and dismissively “other” a part of that community, as if Kruger’s expression of gender is an inconvenience rather than fact of identity.

Surely you know how the singular “they” works.


Bre Zelazny June 1, 2023 at 11:08 am

I guess when you are a white cis-gendered gay male reviewer leaving an honest review about confusing elements of a trans show, you are immediately the mortal enemy of all trans and BIPOC persons, and all the flesh must be slowly picked off your bones in millimeter Exacto-knife slices and you should be permanently CANCELLED for ever and ever.

As I am neither white nor cisgendered, I feel uniquely qualified to call out the sheer destructiveness of such toxic and ultimately ineffective identity politics.

I repeatedly and customarily witness angry blood-thirsty trans (and/or BIPOC) people go after cis-gendered white gay men with no other objective but to destroy them. To them it is not anything that cis gendered white gay men do, it is everything they do, including breathing air to live. If someone says something that the trans establishment doesn’t like, no matter how innocent or inadvertent, it is immediately throttled into the status of a Zero-sum game where somebody must be ground into dust — this helps no one, most of all the trans community.

Mr Frankel was confused by an element of the show that was very confusing. Nothing more, nothing less. He expressed his opinion about that. It is hardly necessary to abusively cut the man’s balls off as a result. Whether you realize it or not, this type of behavior alienates a signinificant contingent of paying audiences who would be happy to support more trans artistic works if they didn’t feel like they were constantly being sized up for the quickest route to their jugular.

This is exactly the type of behavior which is giving all those horrible right-wingers copious amounts of fuel to effectively impose actual oppression of trans people. And this breaks my heart.


Nicholas September 26, 2023 at 6:00 pm

I just read the review and the comments. Tony’s remarks in his review are mild and the responses are psycho.


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