Singin’ in the brain: Peppy musical stars hallucinating surgery patient

Singin’ in the brain: Peppy musical stars hallucinating surgery patient
Orderly dancing: “A New Brain,” opening at Gallery Players on Jan. 27, features a dancing, singing cast of doctors and nurses.
Photo by Caleb Caldwell

Talk about a surgical theater!

This weekend, the Park Slope theater company will launch a hilarious, heartwarming musical about brain surgery. “A New Brain,” opening on Jan. 27 at Gallery Players, is a play about the healing power of art that feels somehow universal, says its director.

“It moves and touches me, and I think it’s one of the most beautiful pieces of musical theater ever written, because it simultaneously shows the honesty and schmaltz and the love we cherish when we see musicals, but it is also full of biting sarcasm and the difficulties we appreciate in life,” said Barrie Gelles. “That’s what life feels like; things get dark, but there’s hope.”

The story, from composer William Finn, follows a musical theater writer named “Gordon Schwinn” who suffers a brain injury due to arteriovenous malformation. The musical’s full-blown song and dance routines spring straight from the character’s unconscious mind, said Gelles.

“His hallucinations turn into song and dance numbers, because in my mind, if you spend all your time writing musicals, your subconscious lets loose in that style,” she said.

Brain power: “A New Brain” follows a musical theater writer (right), who hallucinates up-tempo singing and dancing while he is in the hospital.
Photo by Caleb Caldwell

Between tap routines, nurses and doctors attend to Gordon’s hospital business. In her production, Gelles wanted to emphasize that Gordon’s crisis is not happening privately in his home, but that all his family struggles, relationships, sadness, joy, and fear unfold before an audience of doctors, nurses, and orderlies — an ordeal that many audience members can relate to.

“It’s incredibly public, but also isolated,” said Gelles. “I’ve emphasized the drama and trauma of hospitalization and the health care process. Right now, health care is at the forefront of everyone’s mind, wondering what would happen if we’re in danger, uninsured, or in a crisis.”

Finn wrote the play after his own experience with arteriovenous malformation in 1992, teaming up with book writer James Lapine, who also collaborated with Finn on his 1981 musical “Falsettos.” It debuted Off-Broadway in 1998, and had a re-staging in 2015 as part of the Encores! concert series. Gallery Players finally got the rights to the play this year, and turned over the reins to Gelles, who has a passion for tackling shows that are a bit off the beaten path — either under-appreciated works by great composers, or better-known pieces to which she can apply a different take, she said.

“I love re-envisioning revivals and finding a new way to pay tribute to writers, drilling down to the core of what the show is at heart and finding a way to explode it onto the stage,” said Gelles. “Not to be disingenuous to the original piece, but to find the ultimate truth and recreate it.”

“A New Brain” at Gallery Players (199 14th St. between Fourth and Fifth avenues in Park Slope, (212) 352–3101, www.galleryplayers.com). Jan. 27–Feb. 18; Thu–Sat at 8 pm; Sun at 3 pm. $25 ($20 seniors and students).

Woman in charge: Director Barrie Gelles said that enjoys finding new ways to convey the truth of a writer’s words on the stage.
Photo by Caleb Caldwell

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