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‘Brain’ Thinks Up Slick Comedy

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TIMES THEATER CRITIC

People say things like, “C’mon, it isn’t brain surgery,” but some things are brain surgery. Riding high on the success of “Falsettos,” in which he amalgamated two of his three “Marvin” musicals, profusely talented composer and lyricist William Finn suffered what was misdiagnosed initially as an inoperable brain tumor.

The good news: Finn survived the surgery and then wrote about it. In 1998 Lincoln Center Theater premiered his autobiographical musical “A New Brain,” with a libretto co-written by James Lapine.

Now the show has made its L.A. debut, thanks to West Coast Ensemble. Director-choreographer Todd Nielsen’s production is nice and slick and fast on its feet.

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Finn’s brand of recitative--brash, conversationally unpredictable--couldn’t be mistaken for anyone else’s; it’s like a taxi driven by a highly skilled lunatic. He rhymes “Nantucket” with, well, a common dismissive, and in my personal favorite from “A New Brain,” he folds together the musical’s show-biz and medical themes with “tickets to ‘Chicago”’ and “craniotomy tomorrow.”

The stand-in for Finn carries the name Gordon Schwinn (James Benjamin Cooper). The songwriter’s current and much-loathed assignment is to write “a spring song” for Mr. Bungee (Don Cummings), the froggy host of a kids’ TV show.

With his lover, Roger Delli-Bovi (Peter Welkin), off sailing--” goyim ,” Gordon shrugs--the writer meets friend Rhoda (Shandi Sinnamon) for dinner and promptly collapses into a plate of ziti.

Brain trouble.

The rest of “A New Brain” takes Gordon in and out of the hospital, as well as in and out of various dream states, ruled by various authority figures. These include his tsunami of a mother (Jan Sheldrick), a doctor (Dominick Morra), a nice nurse (Tony Stovall) and a mean one (Angela Haag). In the end, Schwinn realizes, life demands gratitude; it’s too fragile not to.

“A New Brain” peaks early in terms of pure comedy: “Gordo’s Law of Genetics” is a hoot, as clever as “And They’re Off” (about Gordon’s gambler father) is revealing. The latter trots along to Finn’s favored tempo, akin to “Four Jews in a Room Bitching,” the incomparable opener to “March of the Falsettos,” lo these 20 years ago.

Director Nielsen puts everything on casters, much as James Lapine did in the original “March of the Falsettos.” The 10-person ensemble is enthusiastic, well-drilled and game. Cooper’s Gordon seems mighty boyish for this fount of urban Jewish angst, but his voice carries the day.

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“A New Brain” has plenty of songs worth hearing, and the musical values in West Coast Ensemble’s production--marshaled by pianist Christopher Lavely, leading an onstage quartet--are in reliable hands.

*

“A New Brain,” West Coast Ensemble, 522 N. La Brea Ave. Fridays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 3 p.m. Ends Dec. 16. $28-$30. (323) 525-0022. Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes.

James Benjamin Cooper: Gordon Schwinn

Jennie Fahn: Homeless Lady

Shandi Sinnamon: Rhoda

Angela Haag: Waitress, Nancy D.

Don Cummings: Mr. Bungee

Tony Stovall: Richard

Dominick Morra: Dr. Jafar Berensteiner

John O’Brien: The Minister

Peter Welkin: Roger Delli-Bovi

Jan Sheldrick: Mimi Schwinn

Music and lyrics by William Finn. Book by James Lapine and William Finn. Directed and choreographed by Todd Nielsen. Vocal arrangements by Jason Robert Brown. Musical director Christopher Lavely. Scenic design by Evan A. Bartoletti. Lighting design by Steven Young. Costume design by Mia Gyzander. Stage manager Crystal Yvonne Jackson.

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