By Maggie Doherty, Staff Writer
Masquerade Musical Theater Co. is on a winning streak with its selection of shows since spring: first with “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” and now William Finn’s “A New Brain,” directed by Elizabeth Reese. The semi-autobiographical, loopy tale of a struggling musician/songwriter suddenly needing a high-risk brain operationwas the perfect selection for an intimate evening at Spiegel Theater Thursday, Oct. 27.
The word “intimate” is an understatement. With Spiegel seating only roughly 100 people and the stage relatively small, the audience and actors were literally on top of each other. There were no microphones; only strong vocal projection from every member of the 10-person cast.
Gordon Michael Shwinn (played comfortably by Ryan Powell) begins singing and playing a ridiculous song about “springtime” that he needs to turn in to his boss, a tricycle-riding caricature of a man entirely clad in green. We never know if Mr. Bungee actually looks like this or if his appearance is a figure of Gordan’s imagination. Chris Remkus’s portrayal is effectively, eerily manic as he sings to members of the audience, drawing a few chuckles.
Gordon heads to lunch with his best friend Rhoda (Jamie Cook), who is in love with him, if only he weren’t gay. Their amusing duet turns sour when Gordon’s head ends up in his plate of pasta after complaining of a headache. He’s immediately whisked to the hospital where we’re introduced to some the show’s best characters: the hospital staff. We have Derek Bado playing the mad scientist-esque doctor who delivers Gordon’s grim diagnosis with a smile and a song; Heather Gross as the adorable sidekick in scrubs, delivering a solid breakout performance for the freshman; and Park Middleton, who steals the show as “Richard the Nice Nurse” who secretly eats away his feelings. The gospel anthem “Eating Myself Up Alive” is the best musical number, and gets the most audience applause. Middleton, a slim fellow, dons a fat suit with the perfect mix of earnest and sarcasm.
Although Powell’s only expression throughout the show is an apathetic scowl (we forgive him because Gordon’s career sucks and…he’s about to die), he has a beautiful baritone that offers both power and sensitivity throughout his many solos. His boyfriend Roger (Jesse Eberl) has an equally beautiful voice, making their duets incredibly moving. Stefanie Harris’s Mimi Schwinn is a convincing and well-casted overbearing mother. Another breakout freshman performance is Stephen Gordon as the ironic minister, peeping awkwardly at Roger and Gordon and offering satiric diva riffs with a hilarious twist.
Everyone is solid, but we have two show-stealers. The first is Middleton, and the second is Christina Andretta as The Homeless Lady. There’s always someone that has to play the “insane” character, but Andretta does it so convincingly that we almost forget that hers is the voice of reason in the story. Speaking of voice, hers is stellar, with a pure, easy belt and soulful riffs.
Creative lighting, interactive staging and a cool, terrific band (Zachary Leipert, Melody Hall, Maggie Kissinger and Danielle DeMatteo all deserve shoutouts) deliver a well-done, enjoyable show. Although sometimes Finn’s storyline is a bit hard to follow when he ventures from reality into the anesthesia-induced subconscious, the well-casted ensemble and the musical abilities of the leads make the group numbers – gleefully over-the-top Motown diddys or doo-wops – fully entertaining.