Review: On Theater: Brain surgery is set to music in ‘A New Brain’ at Costa Mesa Playhouse


There are several cures for writer’s block, none of which involves brain surgery. Yet when composer-lyricist William Finn underwent such an operation, he noticed a positive creative change and promptly wrote “A New Brain,” which now is the current production at Costa Mesa Playhouse.

The songs in this musical exercise were written after Finn left the hospital. He then put the show together with librettist James Lapine, a frequent collaborator with Broadway emperor Stephen Sondheim. That this isn’t a Sondheim show becomes evident early on.

There are several fine individual moments in the production, directed by Jack Millis, but cohesion seems elusive. Clarity in vocal performance is one aspect that could be addressed by musical director Stephen Hulsey if he weren’t already so busy playing the leading role of the Finn character, Gordon Schwinn.

Schwinn needs to come up with a song for his demanding children’s show host Mr. Bungee (Stan Morrow), who hops into the action periodically dressed like a frog. It’s all too much for the composer, who collapses and becomes a candidate for brain reaugmentation after being diagnosed with something called arteriovenous malformation.

This opens the door for a string of several other characters, including Gordon’s writing partner (Allison McGuire), his life partner (Eric T. Anderson) and his overprotective mother (Adriana Sanchez). All offer support in various ways while Gordon deals with hospital forces such as the “fat nurse” (Jon Peterson), the “skinny nurse” (Noelle Carney) and the optimistic doctor (Mark Phillips).

While all are effective, particularly the vocal power of Sanchez, one of the strongest supporting players is one of the least significant. Jessica-Elisabeth enacts a homeless woman with throaty excellence, begging for change but turning down a dollar bill, and thrusting herself into the forefront primarily on the strength of the actress’s ebullient personality.

Musical highlights, spurred by accompanist Stella Monshaw, include the ensemble numbers “Eating Myself Up Alive” and “The Music Still Plays On.” Sanchez excels on “Throw It Out” as she discards Gordon’s old books, while Jessica-Elisabeth turns on the emotional jets with “ A Really Lousy Day in the Universe.”

Hulsey is pretty much controlled by his character’s condition and appears locked into a single performance level, yet he succeeds quite effectively. The others enjoy more freedom and most thrive with it, particularly Morrow’s animated “froggy” persona, which can become a bit wearying.

“A New Brain” is a new wrinkle, so far as musical comedy is concerned, but the Finn-Levine script could benefit from another visit to the operating room. It’s a mixed blessing, often frustrating but also enjoyable, at the Costa Mesa Playhouse.

If You Go

What: “A New Brain”

When: Till March 4; 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays

Where: Costa Mesa Playhouse, 661 Hamilton St.

Cost: $18 to $22

Information: (949) 650-5269 or

TOM TITUS reviews local theater.