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A New Brain at Artistry MN

Up until recently, I had never heard of Tony Award winning composer William Finn's semi-autobiographical musical A New Brain. I'm a big fan of The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, also composed by Finn, so when I heard about the show through the Twin Cities Theater Bloggers Facebook page, I bought tickets immediately. I've only been to one other Artistry MN show, The Last Five Years back in February 2018. Although I enjoyed that production quite a bit, it was almost two years ago, and there are just two people in the cast. So I had virtually no idea what to expect going into A New Brain. I mean, who knows, maybe Artistry just lucked out with the two leads of The Last Five Years and the rest of their ensemble would be underwhelming? However, when I arrived at Schneider Theater this weekend, I overheard two people talking behind me.

One of them described himself as a "theater bug," and said that he believes Artistry is the best musical theater company in the Twin Cities. I definitely can't say that I have enough experience with Artistry's work to confirm or deny that statement myself, but after seeing A New Brain, I do think that guy probably knows what he's talking about.

The show tells the story of Gordon Schwinn (Riley McNutt), a songwriter struggling to be successful and artistically fulfilled in his job writing music for a children's show about a frog called Mr. Bungee (Bradley Greenwald). When Gordon collapses suddenly at lunch, he and his loved ones must come to terms with the seriousness of his recent diagnosis and the imminent possibility of his death. (But, you know, in a light, fun sort of way!) On the surface, A New Brain sounds harrowing at best and like an over-emotional sob fest at worst. But, throw in a few hallucinations of giant frog, a hilariously effervescent “nice nurse” (Evan Tyler Wilson), a colorful set design, and a few big dance numbers, and you have yourself a quirky tale about art, love, and the importance of our time here on earth.

Although the entire cast was impressive, the standouts in Artistry’s performance were Evan Tyler Wilson as Gordon's “nice nurse” and Jen Burleigh-Bentz as Gordon’s mother Mimi. Wilson was hysterical in every scene and acted the part of the “poor, unsuccessful, and fat” nurse impeccably. I loved him, pitied him, and found him unbelievably relatable. Watching Wilson take center stage in a sequined outfit and pink feather boa during Gordon’s coma-induced fever dream (“Brain Dead”) genuinely made my day. It was a freaking hoot, and his voice was pitch perfect.

Burleigh-Bentz, who was also funny and charming, delivered a Broadway caliber performance all the way through (which I guess makes sense since she literally WAS on Broadway in Mamma Mia! as an ensemble member and understudy for all three of the Dynamos back in the day). Now, to be clear, I’m no expert in vocal arts. I was a band kid in high school. But I know when a voice moves me, and WOW did her voice move me! “Throw it Out” was far and away my favorite number in the show, and I credit that entirely to Burleigh-Bentz's range and ability to perfectly convey the mania of a mother on the verge of a breakdown as her son prepares for brain surgery. She was electric, engaging, and magnetic, and I sincerely hope I get the chance to see her perform again in the future.

The entirety of Artistry's ten-person cast knocked the performance out of the park. However, as I watched, it became clear to me why I had never heard of the 1998 musical; it's just not that strong of show. Sure, it was funny and I was generally entertained, but when I see a great musical, I obsess over it for the foreseeable future. During intermission (A New Brain didn't actually have an intermission, since the run-time is only 100 minutes, but still...), I will frantically google the songs I loved and immediately add them to a Spotify playlist. On the way home, I'll listen to those songs on repeat and spend the next few days trying to learn all the lyrics. A New Brain just didn't have that effect on me. And, given that the show never made it to Broadway and is rarely performed these days, it seems that it didn't have that effect on many other people, either. The songs are fine, but they all start to blend into each other after a while. Elements of the plot are brilliant, but some of the side characters, particularly homeless woman Lisa (Mary Palazzolo), just seem confusing and disconnected from the story. I also struggled to believe the chemistry between Gordon and his boyfriend Roger (C Ryan Shipley). In fact, at first I actually thought they were brothers, but then Roger came into the hospital room and kissed Gordon, and I thought, "Huh. Probably not brothers." Toward the end of the play, their love seemed more sincere, but I was nevertheless thrown off by how the show initially seemed to paint Roger as shallow and goofy and only truly interested in sailing ("I'd Rather Be Sailing") then turned around and wanted the audience to believe that he and Gordon were this strong, loving couple. If that was so, then why did Gordon question whether or not Roger came straight to the hospital after hearing about his collapse? Maybe that was supposed to say more about Gordon's own insecurity than about the strength of his relationship with Roger, but I thought it was sort of contradictory.

Despite its flaws, A New Brain does offer an intriguing plot and moving insights into life, death, and time. The play manages to remain lighthearted and comical while encouraging the audience to consider what is really important in life. Artistry's cast expertly balanced the heavy subject matter and quirky musical numbers, allowing the audience to get the most out of this show. This is not the best play I've ever spent money to see, but the talented cast mostly made up for it.


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