Review: ‘A New Brain’ at the Colonial Players of Annapolis

Harmonious voices! Hilarious hoofing! A dancing frog! With over 30 songs packed into its 90 minutes, the Colonial Players’ A New Brain is a magnificent autobiographical musical comedy that is based on Tony Award-winning musical lyricist William Finn’s near-death experience.

Back row, L-R: Aref Dajani, Jamie Erin Miller, Glenn Singer. Front row, L-R: Shane Conrad, Ron Giddings, Tom Newbrough. Photo courtesy of the Colonial Players of Annapolis.
Back row, L-R: Aref Dajani, Jamie Erin Miller, Glenn Singer. Front row, L-R: Shane Conrad, Ron Giddings, Tom Newbrough. Photo courtesy of the Colonial Players of Annapolis.

A New Brain sports music and lyrics by Finn, who also wrote the book with frequent collaborator James Lapine. A New Brain has a curious history: It started as a group of songs written by Finn after being hospitalized, back in the ’90s, for an arteriovenous malformation (tangled blood vessels in the brain). Kristin Chenoweth played in the 1998 Off-Broadway premiere.

Alicia Sweeney’s direction and choreography lifted this show into brilliance. Musical Direction by Jessica Deskin brought life to the eclectic songbook. Deskin’s blocking kept the players in purposeful motion.

The show played out on Colonial’s cozy, theater-in-the-round stage, on which sat a piano, bedecked with multi-colored lights. One of the stage corners depicted an apartment. Scenery wagon set pieces included desks and a portable shower. Set Designer Carol Youmans, who passed away recently, got the most out of a small space. Youmans contributed her talents to Colonial for over 40 years.

Properties Designer Charlotte Robinson added a red Radio Flyer wagon to the eclectic mix of props. John Purnell’s lighting design provided colors that matched the various moods and goings on in the show, like the projected ocean and blue lights for the musical number “Sailing.”

The play started with Gordon Michael Schwinn, the fictional William Finn, sitting at his piano wrestling with the lyrics for a song for his boss, the frog-outfitted Mr. Bungee, the host of a children’s television show. Between struggling with lyrics about frogs and lilypads–surprising since Finn gave the world The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee–and conversing with colleague Rhoda, Gordon fell ill and collapsed, ushering in a harrowing period in his life. Ron Giddings as Gordon spent many of the early scenes of the play stretched atop the piano, as if it was a gurney.

Tom Newbrough as Mr. Bungee and Ron Giddings as Gordon in 'A New Brain.' Photo courtesy of the Colonial Players of Annapolis.
Tom Newbrough as Mr. Bungee and Ron Giddings as Gordon in ‘A New Brain.’ Photo courtesy of the Colonial Players of Annapolis.

Giddings showed off wonderful pipes in numbers such as the “Prologue” and “Brain Dead.” He dueted well with Shane Conrad, who played Gordon’s partner Roger Delli-Bovi, in “Sailing.” Conrad played Chip in Greenbelt Arts Center’s The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. Giddings has recently been in Colonial’s Babylon Line.

The uber-talented Heather McMunigal, who played Mother in 2nd Star’s Ragtime last year, excelled as Rhoda in numbers such as “Craniotomy” and “Don’t Give In.” McMunigal brought her character’s nuances into the songs.

Motherly fierceness embodied Rebecca Downs’ performance as Mimi Schwinn, Gordon’s mom. Downs’ highlight was “Throw It Out,” during which she cleaned out Gordon’s apartment. I also like her in “Mother’s Gonna Make Things Fine.” Glenn Singer, most recently seen in Colonial’s Rumors, brought comic relief to “Poor, Unsuccessful and Fat” in which he played a worn-out nurse, looking after Gordon.

Tom Newbrough, bedecked in a psychedelic, green, frog-like costume complete with a bowtie, had fun as Mr. Bungee. His standout was “Be Polite to Everyone,” which featured Purnell’s green lightning effect.

Ron Giddings as Gordon, Tom Newbrough as Mr. Bungee, and Shane Conrad as Roger in 'A New Brain.' Photo courtesy of the Colonial Players of Annapolis.
Ron Giddings as Gordon, Tom Newbrough as Mr. Bungee, and Shane Conrad as Roger in ‘A New Brain.’ Photo courtesy of the Colonial Players of Annapolis.

Two members of the cast, Aref Dajani (Murder on the Nile), who played Dr. Jafar, and Eric Meadows (Ragtime), who played the minister, not only brought wonderful voices to songs like “Trouble in His Brain” and “Gordon’s Law of Genetics,” but have faced off-stage medical issues similar to Finn. Dajani underwent a craniotomy and Meadows (who played Scrooge as a Boy at Colonial’s A Christmas Carol nearly two decades ago) battled leukemia.

Cheryl J. Campo, who played a Homeless Lady, displayed impressive vocals and acting skills in her role. Campo previously served as rehearsal pianist for Colonial’s The Secret Garden. Anne Arundel County Assistant Principal Jamie Erin Miller played Waitress/Nancy D. A WATCH nominee for Rabbit Hole, Miller supported the Company in songs like the idiosyncratic “Sitting Becalmed in the Lee of Cuttyhunk (Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey! Heyyy!)”.

The show does more than entertain, it implores the viewer to create, to live. Sweeney, in her notes, quoted the late Dr. Wayne Dyer: “Don’t die with your music still in you.” Colonial and Sweeney have produced another must see. A New Brain is an enjoyable evening of vocal and dramatic entertainment.

Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.

A New Brain plays through May 5, 2019, at the Colonial Players of Annapolis – 108 East Street, Annapolis, MD. For tickets, call 410-268-7373 or go online.