‘A New Brain’
Music and lyrics by William Finn, book by Finn and James Lapine
Nutley Little Theatre
Sept. 8, 9, 14, 15, 16, 22, 23,
at 8 p.m.
NLT Barn, 47 Erie Place, Nutley
By GWEN OREL
There are years and years of experience among the three Montclair actors performing, with a company of 12, in Nutley Little Theatre’s upcoming production of “A New Brain.”
Penny Paul, NLT’s publicity director, is also a Montclairite. Paul studied theater at Yale.
There are many reasons people with professional skills participate in community theater: camaraderie, logistics, limited hours.
One reason that might surprise you: innovative selections.
“NLT prides itself on doing shows that aren’t always done in community theater,” said Paul last week in the theater lobby, while the company did a “sitzprobe,” the seated rehearsal when singers meet orchestra for the first time. “I have seen ‘A New Brain’ done in community theater, but not for a long time. The theater has been here for over 80 years, and we’re still bringing people in.”
Nutley Little Theatre, founded in the 1930s, is a community theater that presents, usually, six plays a year, including a musical. The performing space, like many regional theaters, is a converted barn, and NLT still looks like one: it is painted red, and has barn doors. “We have three new people, who are new to Northern New Jersey,” Paul said referring to the Montclairites. “It’s how we keep fresh, with fresh work, inviting fresh blood.”
MUSICAL THEATER FANS
“A New Brain,” by William Finn and James Lapine, the same pair that created the better-known 1992 Tony Award-winning show “Falsettos,” is a 1998 musical that never made it to Broadway.
It’s a veiled-autobiographical story of a composer recovering from a brain injury. Finn, the composer, had such an injury, and the show began as a series of songs dealing with his recovery.
But while “A New Brain” isn’t widely performed, it’s much beloved by a certain group of people: musical theater fans.
“It’s not as flashy as ‘Falsettos,’” said Michael Smith-Gallo, who plays Roger Delli-Bovi, the love interest of the main character, Gordon. “I jumped at the chance when I heard it was coming to the stage.”
Smith-Gallo is the veteran of the three Montclair actors, having been a Montclairite for two years. White and Weakland are more recent arrivals. All three are making their NLT debuts.
Tim White moved to Montclair five months ago from Jersey City, “to get a yard, schools, space, gardens, driveways.” This musical, White said, is “rarely done. It’s something that those of us who love musical theater listen to.” He plays Gordon’s boss, Mr. Bungee, and doubles as Gordon’s surgeon, Dr. Jafar Berensteiner. “It’s a real gem,” White said.
Christina Weakland moved from Vermont in August 2016 to be with her partner. Weakland is mainly a director, and says performing as an actor is “a rare onstage foray” for her. She plays Rhoda, the main character’s best friend.
“I have listened to this album for years and years and years,” she said. She loves the ensemble song “Heart and Music” so much that if she ever starts a theater company, she’ll name it Heart and Music.
“For me, it’s a show about a composer, written by a composer, about himself,” she said.
A PUNCH, A LAUGH
A musical about someone recovering from injury, highlighting the tension between art, commerce and love, doesn’t necessarily sound like a good laugh.
But much of it is, the actors insist.
There’s a coma sequence where Weakland plays a ventriloquist’s dummy.
Mr. Bungee is writing a children’s show, which includes a frogman: “Think Barney, except with frogs instead of dinosaurs,” Smith-Gallo said.
White, who plays the hapless Bungee, explained that his character is really not in the plot at all: he exists via cellphone, begging for Gordon’s songs. Yet as Gordon suffers his brain trauma, he hallucinates seeing him, “and I speak out his fears and insecurities. For White, the characters’ flaws make them relatable. Bungee is not a terrible person, but he needs his composer to begin the work he needs delivered, he explained.
The play is about “the redemptive power of art,” said Smith-Gallo. But while “A Really Lousy Day in the Universe” is his favorite song, “the play is not a dirge. It does have these ‘punch in the gut’ moments that hit you, but then it has you laughing five minutes later.
“It’s rare to have a musical that’s honest like that.”
And then there is the music itself, which Weakland described as “quirky, with harmonies so thick and dense that it’s just a delight to listen to.”
The cast has had a chance to listen to the show because, unusually for a musical that hasn’t made it to Broadway, it’s been recorded twice: an original cast recording, and a full (with text) recording from a 2015 production at Encores! City Center.
For White, the tricky harmonies are challenging, but the music is truly wonderful.
Tricky, but wonderful: that’s the way these actors would describe the show, too.