5 & DIME THEATRE REVIEW
A DUAL CRITICS REVIEW BY DICK KEREKES & LEISLA SANSOM
The 5 & Dime Theatre Company opened its very first musical in their new Downtown Jacksonville location at 122 Adams Street. The company and sponsors Rob & Donna Banks opened the Florida premier of the dynamic musical “A New Brain” on April 21, on stage until May 7, 2017.
We wonder if anyone has written a book about where composers and playwrights find their subjects. If yes, the story of “A New Brain,” which debuted in 1998, certainly would be included in that book.
When composer William Finn experienced dizziness and partial paralysis in 1992 (the same year he and collaborator James Lapine received Tonys for “Falsettos”), he was hospitalized and diagnosed with Arteriovenous Malformation, a potentially life-threatening brain condition which required surgical intervention and a prolonged recovery period. This traumatic experience inspired the creation of “A New Brain.” Finn wrote the lyrics and music and he and Lapine collaborated on the book.
Ah, this musical, composed in the shadow of death, surprised us with its staging, music, wit, and exceptional cast. The main character is Gordon Michael Schwinn, who spends most of his time in a hospital bed. He is portrayed by Josh Waller, who sings beautifully with persuasion and at times with great humor. Schwinn is a composer who was writing songs for a children’s TV show prior to being hospitalized. The show is hosted by Mr. Bungee, played by Rob Banks, who frequently appears with his frog puppet and is hilarious but is also somewhat demeaning and demanding.
While hospitalized, he is visited frequently by Mimi, his loving but arrogant mother, portrayed by Amy Allen Farmer with her amazing vocal power. She had the audience roaring with laughter when she visited her son’s apartment and tidied up while singing “Throw It Out.”
Jacksonville favorite Daniel Austin appears as Roger Delli-Bovi, Gordon’s boyfriend. He contributes several songs, with “I’d Rather Be Sailing” giving a strong sense of their relationship.
The eclectic Jeffery Wells, who was last seen in 5 & Dime’s “33 Variations,” is very funny as the male nurse from hell, and was at his best singing “Poor, Unsuccessful, and Fat.”
Actress Isabella Martiniz, whom we last saw in Theatre Jacksonville’s production of “Hairspray” appears as Rhoda, Gordon’s best friend, and displays her fine singing voice in several songs. As a homeless woman, Katie Swider-McCloskey begs for change in front of the hospital, and it looks at first like an unpromising location, until she unleashes her magnificently trained vocal abilities in “Really a Lousy Day in the Universe.” Rounding out this extraordinarily talented cast as singers are Julie Harrington as the waitress/Nancy and Eric Yarham as Dr. Berensteiner.
The program doesn’t list the thirty or so songs in the musical, perhaps because some of the dialogue was sung and led right into the songs, with related titles such as “Brain Dead,” “Craniotomy,” and “Trouble in his Brain.”
Director Ron Shreve is probably responsible for this show being produced locally as he had wanted to see it and to have the opportunity to direct it. And while no choreographer is listed, he is likely responsible for the side-splitting but brief “zombie dance” by the entire cast. Mr. Shreve previously directed “All New People” in 2013 for the 5 & Dime.
Musical Director Erin Barnes on the piano conducted the band tucked away backstage. It featured Stefanie Batson-Martin (Keyboard), Damon Martin (Bass) and Vikram Margam and Greg Hersey (Percussion).
The set designed by Mr. Shreve and Production Manager Lee Hamby consisted of a tie dye image on a large wooden centerpiece. Actors came on stage from behind the centerpiece.
Additional Production Crew members included Kayla Fender (Stage Manager), Katie Cress (Assistant Stage Manager), Austin Kelm (Lighting Design), Jim Wiggins (Lighting Tech), and Ron Shreve (Costumes).
As we indicated, the musical ends well, and the real life William Finn has returned to composing. This fully-staged musical was a joy in the intimate surroundings of the 5 & Dime Theatre. Don’t miss it.