Raising Your IQ
Rude Guerrilla Theater turns mediocrity into magic withA New Brain
Musicals are often brushed aside by serious theater-goers (and serious theater creators) as slightly retarded fluff, absent real intelligence and desire to pull controversies and issues out of the shadows—one look at the current lineup of "family fun" in the Broadway Top 10 (Wicked, Mamma Mia!, The Lion King, The Producers) proves they have a point. Mostly. There have been times, however, in between Oklahoma and Cats, Phantom and Hairspray, that a musical has set its crosshairs on a worthy target and blown it away. Think Jesus Christ Superstar, Hair—maybe even Rent.
William Finn and James Lapine's A New Brain, directed by Patrick Pearson at the Rude Guerilla Theater Co., is none of the above, however—a B-grade musical that's too alternative for Lion King lovers and yet about two dozen memorable songs short of becoming a real alt-hit. This isn't to say it's bad; quite the opposite. If anything, Finn and Lapine prove that all any mediocre story needs is some snazzy tunage and enthusiastic actors to turn lame into electrifying. Yes, it's cheating—this story of a young gay writer/musician who has a near-death experience from a brain abnormality is hopelessly dull (it's set in a hospital!), and the theme of how almost losing your life can super-charge one to live more and complain less is cartoonishly hopeful (unless it's happened to you, I guess).
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But, in the midst of some dregginess, we get inventive songs from waitresses singing about calamari appetizers, a mother singing about how all of her son's bad traits come from the father (not to mention the classic line, "Why is the smart son always the gay son?"), and characters who point out "I'm the thin nurse" and "I'm the nice nurse." Clever quips can certainly distract, and Brain has quips aplenty.
The story itself meanders through our ailing hero Gordon's life, in which characters are always in song. We meet his mother (who will fix everything and focuses on cleaning Gordon's apartment while he's in the ER), his boyfriend Roger (who likes to sail), his boss Mr. Bungee (a children's-show host dressed like a frog), his agent Rhoda (who guilts Gordon into finishing the Bungee song on what might be his last night of consciousness before his operation), his gay male nurse (the nice one, who keeps trying to get into Gordon's pants), his saucy female nurse (the thin one, who loves delivering bad news), his doctors and a priest. Not very flashy, but stick all these people into a small performance space, minimally prop it, and get each one to play an instrument—clarinet, drums, keyboard, acoustic guitar and bass—and the "wow" factor shoots up about a zillion notches.
The musical arrangements and the choreography are the lifeblood of this production, in fact. Though they could have pre-recorded everything, as many shows do, Pearson and musical director Gregory Nabours envisioned something much more, and it pays off ten-fold. Add to this the casting of some truly gorgeous voices (Aimee Karlin, Jeffrey Aiken and Kaitlyn Etter certainly stand out), and you have one elevated, seamless romp that can send chills up your neck and sprout tears in the most cynical of eyes. That's called going from a B to an A, using extra credit points.
A New Brainat the Rude Guerrilla Theater Co., 200 N. Broadway, Santa Ana, (714) 547-4688; www.rudeguerrilla.org. Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 p.m. Through July 6. $25.