Chicago Theatre Review
The Songs Deep Inside
A New Brain – Theo Ubique
Theatergoers may think some subjects are taboo for a musical. But then we recall there’s a popular show about crooning, balletic New York City gang members battling for their turf. There’s also a dark musical about a vengeful barber who slits the throats of his enemies and then allows his lover to bake his victims into meat pies. Too bizarre? Perhaps. But it might be just as hard to imagine a cast of actors singing and dancing about a young, gay composer suddenly contracting a deadly brain disease and then having to face his own mortality through a very risky surgery.
However, that’s what audiences will experience with this brilliant, new production that opens Theo Ubique’s 2017-18 season. This is, coincidentally, the last year that the company will be performing at its Rogers Park home, the No Exit Cafe (they plan a move to Evanston next season). William Finn, the Tony Award-winning composer/lyricist of “Falsettos,” as well
as the more familiar “25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,” wrote this autobiographical musical with his longtime writing partner James Lapine. The piece is unexpectedly funny, often heartbreakingly poignant and filled, like everyone’s life, with a cast of eccentric characters. Most importantly, however, this musical examines the creative mind and the healing power of art through a two-hour tuneful, mostly sung-through musical.
Soon after he won Tony Awards for his 1992 groundbreaking production of “Falsettos,” Finn took ill. At first misdiagnosed with a brain tumor, Finn later learned that he was suffering from arteriovenous malformation. Following a dangerous surgical procedure that could’ve either killed him or destroyed his creative talents, Finn not only survived but celebrated his rebirth by creating this autobiographical musical about vanquishing death.
In this musical version of his illness, Finn’s character is called Gordon. He’s a frustrated composer who writes songs for Mr. Bungee, the ironically hardhearted and inhumane host of a children’s TV show. Under much stress, Gordon suffers a severe headache and suddenly collapses. At the hospital he’s diagnosed and surgery is recommended, but Gordon’s frightened that all the music he still has inside him will die on the operating table. Following his surgery, Gordon languishes in a coma, between life and death, during which he experiences hallucinations featuring everyone in his life, including his pushy, optimistic mother, his callous employer and his loving boyfriend, Roger. He thankfully recovers, as did William Finn, able to better appreciate all the people in his life and ready to write great music once more.
This is a gorgeous, jaw-dropping production in so many ways. Fred Anzevino’s direction is crisp, sharp, unflinching and so empathetic. He gently guides us through Finn’s emotional story, alternately riding waves of drama and drollery. His talent has never been more strongly visible than in this production. Wisely utilizing the intimacy of the venue, Anzevino makes the story feel even more personal. The always magnificent Jeremy Ramey, a multi Jeff Award-winning Musical Director and the maestro of his tiny, four-piece orchestra, makes this score sound especially rich and wonderful, while bringing out the best in each performer. Gifted Assistant Director Cameron Turner returns to Theo Ubique to create some of his best, most inventive and quirky choreography ever. And the production is underscored by Abigail Reed’s adaptable scenic design, James Kolditz’s glistening lighting plot and Bill Morey’s perfect, sometime tongue-in-cheek costumes.
But the sheer amount of musical and dramatic talent that fills the stage and aisles of the No Exit is almost overwhelming. It’s a marvel how Fred Anzevino continually manages to find these gifted new artists for each of his shows. An example is Chase Heinemann, a Chicago College of the Performing Arts senior, who’s an unbelievable new discovery. As Gordon, he’s both suitably cranky as a frustrated, overworked musical composer, and understandably terrified as a young man who’s not ready to die. Not only is Mr. Heinemann a talented actor, as well as a skilled keyboard musician, but he has the kind of clear, soaring voice that guarantees he’s going to have a promising future in musical theatre. Keep your eyes on this young man.
Staunchly supported by another Chicago newcomer, Colin Schreier sensitively portrays Roger, Gordon’s selfless, loving and charismatic boyfriend. Easy on the eyes and ears, Mr. Schreier is simply magnificent and another actor to watch. He not only sings beautifully but, through this young man’s eyes, the audience experiences everything his character is thinking and feeling. Sharing several duets, both Heinemann and Schreier sound incredible in songs like “Time” and, especially, “I’d Rather be Sailing.” Together they create a loving, romantic couple, facing a personal tragedy, that’s honest and realistic.
A Chicago native, but currently living and working in theatres all over the Milwaukee area, Liz Norton creates a strong, beautifully acted and sung Mimi, Gordon’s meddlesome, overbearing mother. Her performance of “The Music Still Plays On” is quite stunning. Another talented actor making a brilliant Chicago debut is Andy Brown, in the role of the acerbic, amphibious children’s television celebrity, Mr. Bungee. And Danny Dwayne Wells, yet one more new Chicago actor/singer, brings his subtle comic genius and outstanding vocal prowess to several different ensemble roles, including the Minister. Hopefully we’ll be seeing a lot more from all three of these excellent artists.
The cast is completed by a handful of familiar Windy City talents. Tommy Bullington is warm, wonderfully lovable and absolutely hilarious as impish Richard, the “nice nurse.” The highlight of his incredible performance is a dreamy torch song, one of several performed as part of Gordon’s coma-induced hallucination. Jeff Award-winner Veronica Garza is unsurpassed as a brusquely cynical homeless woman, named Lisa. Ever present, always demanding change from every passerby, Ms. Garza excels in all the company numbers. But she’s a particular standout in her duet with Roger, “A Really Lousy Day in the Universe,” in her number with both Gordon and Roger, “The Homeless Lady’s Revenge,” as well as in her solo, appropriately titled “Change.” Other standout ensemble members include pretty Chicago belters Holly Atwood, as both the waitress and Nancy, the “nasty nurse,” and Tyler Franklin, as Gordon’s caring but controlling friend and agent, Rhoda. And rounding out the cast is Kyle Ryan, a powerful and versatile area actor/singer who plays the Doctor, among other characters.
While not the composer’s best-known work, Theo Ubique, under the guidance of Fred Anzevino, Jeremy Ramey and Cameron Turner, offers a wise, empathetic and entertaining look at the complicated playground that is the creative mind. Originally written as just a series of songs, following composer/lyricist William Finn’s departure from the hospital after his own life-and-death episode, “A New Brain” eventually evolved into a 1998 Off-Broadway musical. Now featuring over two dozen songs, this is one of Theo Ubique’s finest, most sensitive, not-to-be-missed productions, and an outstanding curtain-raiser for their new season of excellent musicals.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented September 15-October 29 by Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre at the No Exit Cafe, 6970 N. Glenwood Ave., Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling 800-595-4849 or by going to www.theo-u.com.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.