Music by: William Finn
Book by: William Finn and James Lapine
At: No Exit Café, 6970 N Glenwood Ave.
Tickets: Theo-u.com; $29-59
Runs through: Oct. 29
BY JAMES R. WILKE
Before seeing this production, I was admittedly concerned about the risks inherent for a small Chicago theater company tackling William Finn's semi-autobiographical off-Broadway musical comedy about a young composer suddenly facing life-threatening brain surgery. But I am happy to report that Theo Ubique's A New Brain emerges from the operating room a success!
No Exit Café lends just the right intimacy for this light-yet-heartfelt story about a hospital room patient and the real ( and imagined ) people and events surrounding him. Though the theatrical space is oddly-shaped, director Fred Anzevino creates an ingenious staging that maximizes visual payoff. The audience forgets about space constraints as the actors move effortlessly through the action.
Chase Heinemann plays the lead, Gordon Schwinn, a struggling songwriter yearning for artistic fulfillment who suddenly finds himself fighting for his life. While Heinemann's singing is not remarkable, he displays the charisma and believability to carry the show. Colin Schreier plays Gordon's caring-yet-aloof boyfriend, Roger Delli-Bover, and their portrayal of gay romance feels authentic and refreshingly unclichéd.
But there is a whole host of lovable characters to enjoy, from the worried mother Mimi Schwinn ( Liz Norton ) to the cruel employer Mr. Bungee ( Andy Brown ). And what many in the cast lack in solo vocal flair, they make up for in solid character development.
Indeed, the show is full of entertaining surprises. Among these is Tommy Bullington as "good nurse" Richard. Not only does Bullington squeeze every ounce of comedy out of memorable numbers like "Poor, Unsuccessful and Fat," but he exudes a tenderness that makes his character endearing.
Actress Veronica Garza likewise commands the stage as she teaches the audience never to underestimate the homeless lady. Perhaps the most dazzling singer of the cast, Garza stops the show at the close of the first act with her colorful rendition of the song "Change."
Chorus numbers are also consistently strong, as Jeff Award-winning music director Jeremy Ramey leads the cast in a delightfully fresh and crisp interpretation of Finn's rhythmically challenging score. And lighting designer James Kolditz should also be commended for a remarkably creative use of stage lighting.
It seems that Theo Ubique's cast and production team has diagnosed William Finn's off-Broadway show for just what it is: a small-scale, sardonic-yet-cathartic comedy that holds up a mirror to show just how perfectly imperfect we all are when faced with the mortality of our loved-ones and sometimes ourselves. And they give A New Brain just the right treatment to bring it to life.