In the opening minutes of William Finn and James Lapine’s 1998 musical A New Brain, fledgling composer Gordon Michael Schwinn suddenly realizes something is wrong with his body, specifically his head. He is ultimately diagnosed with an arteriovenous malformation (AVM), a troubling predicament requiring a craniotomy, but his fascinating journey from overwhelming fear to contented recovery provides many quirky, riveting and tender pleasures as terrifically envisioned by Dare to Defy Productions at the PNC Arts Annex.
Skillfully directed by Philip Drennen and based on Finn’s battle with AVM, “A New Brain” thrives on the importance of connection and relationships as Gordon (outstandingly heartfelt and understated Bobby Mitchum) fights for his life while consumed with professional and personal strife. His severe bout of writer’s block doesn’t abandon him in the hospital, impairing obligations to his friend/co-worker Rhoda (playfully stern Danielle Ruddy) as well as his demanding boss/children’s TV show host Mr. Bungee (comical, sprightly and haunting Brandon Leatherland). At the same traumatic rate, he is bombarded by his fussy mother Mimi (fittingly overbearing Lindsay Sherman, admirably disguising her youth) and conflicted about the depths of his love for boyfriend Roger (handsome tenor Brent Hoggatt in full swoon mode). Rhoda, Mr. Bungee, Mimi, and Roger take precedence, but Finn and co-librettist Lapine smartly expands the engaging narrative to include the enthusiastic, concerned hospital staff (exuberant Zach King as Dr. Jafar Berensteiner, sterling soprano Abby Hoggatt as thin nurse Nancy, charming John Woll in a delectable breakthrough portrayal of nice nurse Richard, and kindly Garrett Young as Minister) and a mysterious, no-nonsense, entrepreneurial Homeless Lady (overly presentational but vocally beguiling Vanae Stevee Pate) who primarily interacts with Gordon and Roger but is still a nifty part of the whole.
Reality and fantasy enjoyably collide throughout, allowing Drennen to remarkably pull out the stops with a rarity known as good old-fashioned musical staging. In Gordo’s Law of Genetics, a funny look at Gordon’s family medical history, he offers an homage to A Chorus Line as the delightful cast joins forces to sing amazing vocal arrangements courtesy of Jason Robert Brown (Songs for a New World, Parade, The Bridges of Madison County). Immediately afterward, he marvelously conceives And They’re Off, a compelling number detailing Gordon’s unhealthy relationship with his abusive, deadbeat, horse gambling-addicted father. Heightened by fantastic, volatile chemistry between
Sherman and King, the scene essentially morphs into a full-throttle mini-musical. Other knockouts, accented by Ara Beal’s expert lighting design, include Whenever I Dream (featuring Mitchum and Ruddy’s homage to Chicago) and The Music Still Plays On (beautifully sung by Sherman with a breathtaking, torch song-esque poignance recalling Losing My Mind from the equally surreal Loveland sequence in Follies).
Granted, not every number in Finn’s score, firmly in the hands of music director Norman Moxley II’s seven-piece orchestra, is a home run. In fact, The Homeless Lady’s Revenge and Mimi’s emotional breakdown Throw it Out are lifted from true accounts, but feel thematically superfluous and stalling. Regardless, Drennen, who impressively staged the challenging Violet last season for Dare to Defy, has an incredible knack for storytelling. Once again, he instills his savvy, lyric-conscious expertise among his cast, even in the smallest moments (Hoggatt, conveying complete serenity, sincerely delivers one of the most gorgeously introspective renditions of I’d Rather Be Sailing I have heard).
A New Brain, one of the best productions in Dare to Defy history, is an inspiring testament to the beauty of second chances, the power of perseverance, the joy of artistic rejuvenation, the support of family and friends, and the enduring gift of time. Even when your very existence hangs in the balance, don’t give in. Life is worth fighting for. Hold fast to the promise of spring.
A New Brain concludes today at 2 and 8 p.m. in the PNC Arts Annex, 46 W. Second St., Dayton. The show is performed in 100 minutes without an intermission. Tickets are $18-$30. For tickets or more information, call Ticket Center Stage at (937) 228-3630 or visit ticketcenterstage.com.