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Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Near-Death Experience

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  When American composer William Finn was diagnosed with a brain tumor, his career was taking off. His musical Falsettos had met with success on Broadway. The tumor nearly killed him. However, when he returned from the hospital, he found that he could not sit down at the piano without writing a good song. The near-death experience had jarred a sense of life into him that carried through the keyboard. Having survived the ordeal, he put together a musical about it called A New Brain. It’s the story of a commercial composer who narrowly survives a brain tumor while working on music for a children’s program. The Windfall Theatre closes its season with an expressionistic production of the musical, which opens May 2.

  The magic of A New Brain comes from the fact that Finn (and his counterpart in the musical) survives the operation, so audiences can expect the show to go in an uplifting, inspirational direction. If the Windfall production carries the show in this direction without the story’s emotions becoming the slightest bit forced, the production could end up being quite well balanced.

  Larry Birkett stars as composer Gordon Michael Schwinn who is forced to juggle life, death and diagnosis while interacting with his mother, his lover, his doctor, two nurses, a minister and a TV frog named Bungee, among others. The ensemble includes Windfall regulars such as Thomas Rosenthal, Marilyn White and Producing Director Carol Zippel joined by talent more commonly seen elsewhere like David Flores and Kristin Pangenkopf. The play focuses on human drama, so the production will be sparse—the perfect sort of fare for the tiny confines of Village Church Arts on Juneau where it will be performed.

  A New Brain rests in the borders between a number of dichotomies. Not really having a fully cohesive plot, the show is more of a cycle of songs with a dramatic arc than a traditional musical. Here it is riding the edge between classic musical theater and cabaret, though it touches on very serious subjects that bear considerable dramatic weight. This poses an interesting challenge to any production: If the mood moves too far away from the drama of the main character's condition, it runs the risk of losing sight of the central conflict. If the mood veers too far from traditional musical theater, it loses much of what makes the show so unique. “The dichotomy … is what makes this show so much fun for the actors and the audience,” says director Shawn Gulyas.“You never know what's going to happen next—just as you would if you were facing an uncertain future.” With respect to specifics, the decisions Gulyas and company have made are driven by the music and the lyrics. When the play dives into the mind of the main character, the drama of the moment takes over. “When we jump inside Gordon's mind,” says Gulyas, “things can get a little crazy.” A New Brain runs through May 17.