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‘A New Brain’ with plenty of heart at Barrington Stage

Adam Chanler-Berat (center left), Salome B. Smith (center right), and the ensemble of "A New Brain" at Barrington Stage Company.Daniel Rader

PITTSFIELD — Who else but composer William Finn (“Falsettos,” “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee”) could open a musical with a children’s song about a frog, build a high-stakes story, and then close with that same opening melody transformed into a life-affirming anthem?

“A New Brain,” Finn’s semi-autobiographical musical about his own near-death experience, is having an inspired production at Barrington Stage Company that amplifies the people who surround Gordon Schwinn, the struggling writer/patient at the center of the drama. Director Joe Calarco has cast a truly extraordinary ensemble and allows them to lean into their characters. This approach strikes a beautiful balance between Finn’s original idea of the show as a musical revue and book writer James Lapine’s delicate stitching of the story lines. With the focus on the characters who surround Gordon, Calarco strengthens his connections to the people — his mom, his lover, his neurosurgeon, his nurses, and even a homeless woman — who are a part of his life at a critical time.


The plot follows Gordon (Adam Chanler-Berat), a songwriter who works for the demonic host of a children’s TV show named Mr. Bungee (Andy Grotelueschen) to pay the bills. But as Gordon tells his best friend, Rhoda (Dorcas Leung), the time he’s spending cranking out inane children’s songs is keeping him from writing the music that’s welling up inside him. When an undiagnosed brain malformation causes a stroke, Gordon lands in the hospital awaiting what might be his final days.

Because this is Finn, even songs titled “MRI Tomorrow” (and “MRI Day”) and “Craniotomy” have such playful rhymes, it’s impossible to be discouraged. And then, oh yes, Darrell Purcell Jr., as Gordon’s boyfriend, Roger, delivers “I’d Rather Be Sailing,” a love song guaranteed to induce a swoon. Purcell also nails “Anytime,” a song cut from the original 1998 off-Broadway production, that, restored here, not only offers another opportunity for Purcell to make us sigh but also deepens our understanding of Gordon and Roger’s relationship.


Darrell Purcell Jr. (left) and Adam Chanler-Berat in Barrington Stage Company's "A New Brain."Daniel Rader

The indomitable Mary Testa plays Gordon’s mother, walking a fine line between sunny optimism and utter despair. Her determination (“Mother’s Gonna Make Things Fine”) is undercut by her private fears (“Throw It Out”) and her heartbreak, with the tear-inducing “The Music Still Plays On.” Testa’s powerful vocals are worth the price of admission alone, but her portrayal reveals a complicated woman trying to make sense of the situation she’s confronting.

The part of the homeless woman may feel tangential to Gordan’s inner circle of family and friends, but in Calarco’s vision and as portrayed by Salome B. Smith, she is essential to the story. An outsider, yes, but her perspective on “Change” and Smith’s performance make it the musical’s showstopper, a plea for attention and respect.

Finn’s admiration for singers is obvious in his ensemble numbers, which always allow individual performers to shine as characters as well as singers, while featuring glorious harmonies. Although each member of this ensemble delivers a well-defined character, standouts include Tally Sessions as the hunky neurosurgeon who revels in complex surgeries; Eliseo Román as the nurse whose worries about being “Poor, Unsuccessful and Fat” don’t prevent him from providing care that is both compassionate and a little sassy; and Chanler-Berat, who, as Gordon, provides an anchor for the action while always making space for the people around him to shine.


Andy Grotelueschen (top) and Adam Chanler-Berat in "A New Brain" at Barrington Stage Company.Daniel Rader

Scenic designer Paige Hathaway has created a backdrop image of a brain that also suggests the branches of a tree (those connections to people), with lighting pathways illuminated in different patterns depending on where we are in Gordon’s medical journey. And the performers get outstanding support from conductor Vadim Feichtner and his six-piece orchestra.

The fact that Gordon’s nemesis, Mr. Bungee, also inspires him (“Don’t Give In”), underscores this musical’s embrace of childlike joy and wonder. Finn’s gift with “A New Brain” is his ability to look mortality in the eye and remind us to go out singing “I Feel So Much Spring.” The Barrington Stage Company production is a reminder of the magic of musical theater and its ability to inspire so many emotions in just 100 minutes.

Correction: An earlier version of this review misidentified the actor who plays Roger. He is Darrell Purcell Jr.


Music and Lyrics by William Finn. Book by Finn and James Lapine. Directed by Joe Calarco. Musical direction by Vadim Feichtner. Choreography by Chloe O. Davis. Presented by Barrington Stage Company in Association with Williamstown Theatre Festival. At Boyd-Quinson Stage, Pittsfield, through Sept. 10.

Terry Byrne can be reached at