Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

August 23, 2023

Review: Barrington Stage Company, "A New Brain"

Barrington Stage Company, Pittsfield, MA
August 16 - September 10, 2023
by Shera Cohen

The most important attribute that can be applied to Barrington Stage Company's (BSC) presentation of "A New Brain" is "collaboration". That is the play, and this production, in a nutshell. Yes, one word, when a lengthy review is in certainly in order (keep reading).

Kudos must be shared, first by the teamwork of two of the Berkshire's finest theaters, Williamstown Theatre and Barrington Stage Company. Artistic Directors of both venues introduced this musical, with extreme obvious pride. Each was thrilled that co-creator William Finn was present, seated in the audience, undoubtedly reflecting on his semi-biographical story. "A New Brain" is a marriage between BSC and Williamstown Theatre with the ultimate production on the Barrington's Boyd-Quinson Stage.

The second major collaboration is of co-creators Willliam Finn ("The Putnam County Spelling Bee" which premiered at BSC) and James Lapine ("Into the Woods.") Finn did the music and lyrics while Lapine wrote the book. In many ways, Finn's name is synonymous with the success of BSC.

Surprisingly to me is that the list of musical numbers was approximately 30. I had no idea that I was about to see a non-stop musical in the vein of many current, popular shows on Broadway. "A New Brain" premiered off-Broadway in 1998. How did I never hear of this sweet story about life and near-death, flooded with a diverse group of ancillary characters, each with his/her own purpose?

Lead character Gordon, portrayed by Adam Chanler-Berat, is a wanna-be writer, stuck at his computer, making very little progress. It's likely that the stalling of his career is due to a developing brain tumor. Of course, Adam is concerned, as are others. But Adam is not obsessed; in fact, many of his songs are humorous. The same for most of the ten actors in the cast. The actor doesn't have a resounding voice, but one that befits his character. He is "everyman". Gordon depicts your "average Joe", and that helps the audience relate to the story.

Playbill photo by Darrell Purcell, Jr.
Mary Testa as his mother and Darrell Purcell, Jr. as Gordon's lover are the top-notch singers in the ensemble, with Tally Sessions as The Doctor, a bass singer commanding the stage in three guest appearances. All singers/actors played their roles well. 
The final collaboration of note is director Joe Calarco, choreographer Chloe O. Davis, and music director Vadim Feichter. If "A New Brain" is destined for Broadway again, many cuts are recommended; some songs completely and others shortened. The stream of music telling an essentially true story is reminiscent of "Far from Away" (another true story) yet lacks the audience's closeness with each character.

With the help of these three vital collaborations, "A New Brain" may just have a chance and a hope to make its way back to NYC.