They had me at Payton and Kelley. Richards and Hill. Briggs and DeBruyne. Theatre Nova and The Ringwald.
Since the 1970s, comic book fans have been treated to the occasional intercompany crossover in which DC produced a story featuring Superman with Marvel’s Spiderman, while Marvel and IDC mixed it up with the X-Men and Star Trek. (Yes, that really happened.) Part of the fun for the reader was seeing how writers and artists of one company would mix with their peers and/or characters of another to churn out a story that could be enjoyed by fans of both.
A somewhat similar phenomenon occurred across the Detroit-to-Lansing corridor since at least 2005 when the late, lamented BoarsHead Theater joined forces with Plowshares Theatre Company to co-produce “The Story,” which was quickly followed by other team-ups with Meadow Brook Theatre and (the equally late and lamented) Performance Network. And it wasn’t long before a handful of other theaters joined in the fun.
As a theatergoer, I always looked forward to these events, since the cross pollination of talent served to introduce audiences in one market to the creative wizardry of another. They also enabled budget-wary producers to share costs that allowed two companies to offer quality shows to their specific audiences they might never otherwise experience. (If, for example, Performance Network and BoarsHead hadn’t co-produced Kim Carney’s “Moonglow,” most theatergoers in Metro Detroit might never have been treated to the wonderment that was the amazing actress, Carmen Decker.)
It was a win-win for everyone, including the multitude of actors, designers and directors whose options for work increased because of this exposure to management teams outside their traditional venues.
Unfortunately, such joint efforts seemed to have fallen by the wayside in recent years – and the pandemic shutdown certainly put a stop to them altogether. But an email I received a few weeks back gave me hope that team-ups and crossovers will make a comeback as theaters begin to slowly reopen their doors to the public.
The good news is that the first such effort is well-worth seeing. Given the show’s pedigree, I assumed the production would be well cast and creatively staged. What I didn’t expect, however, was how such an OK script could become so much more powerful and memorable because of their efforts.
For three weekends beginning June 5, Ann Arbor’s Theatre Nova and (the still-in) Ferndale’s Ringwald Theatre began “on-demand” performances of the musical “A New Brain,” courtesy of Broadway on Demand. It can be accessed any number of ways online through June 20. The production is the best of both worlds, as it’s staged as a play, but produced as a movie, which brings the power of the performances up close and personal in a way that would never happen sitting three (or 20) rows from the action. And that made all the difference in how I responded to the production.
Creator William Finn initially conceived “A New Brain” not as a musical, but as a series of songs he wrote after being released from the hospital following his near-fatal collapse on 45th Street in New York City. After workshopping what started as a concert-style production, Finn teamed with frequent collaborator James Lapine on the book, and together they merged the songs with a storyline to create a 90-minute (or so) musical that launched off-Broadway in 1998 for an almost five-month run.
It’s a somewhat-autobiographical tale. Children’s television songwriter Gordon Schwinn is frustrated creating silly songs for a demanding adult man dressed as a frog. While having a not-so-pleasant lunch with his best friend and agent, Gordon’s brain decides to painfully introduce him to a heretofore-undiscovered arteriovenous malformation, sending Gordon face first into his meal. Later, at the hospital awaiting brain surgery, Gordon reveals his biggest fear: dying with his greatest song still inside his head. And it just so happens that his boss, Mr. Bungee, still needs one more tune for the next show. Immediately.
There’s much more to it than that, with most of the plot and story revealed through song rather than dialog. Sometimes, though, you might scratch your head and wonder why a homeless lady keeps showing up, or why the show occasionally feels like a patchwork of songs that kinda/sorta don’t feel connected. Or why the characters seem a bit shallow, one-note or cartoony, with motives that aren’t always clear.
But none of that is the fault of Theater Nova or The Ringwald. What they are responsible for, however, is director Vince Kelley and his cast taking Finn and Lapine’s material and making it – well, sing!
And sing they do. Diane Hill as Gordon’s neurotic mother, Mimi, has two numbers that sizzle. The first, “Mother’s Gonna Make Things Fine,” is Mimi’s initial reaction to her son’s hospitalization. But with the realization that Gordon’s surgery could be fatal – and outside her ability to fix – she decides to head over to Gordon’s apartment and clean. It’s a heart-wrenching performance, as Mimi’s emotions bubble up and explode – and it serves as a reminder of just what a kick-ass actress Hill is in such roles.
Then there’s Jamie Richards as Mr. Bungee, the tyrannical producer and star of the children’s television show that employs Gordon as a songwriter. One image burned into my memory bank is Richards as a contemplative Mr. Bungee, sitting in his darkened studio, a cigarette dangling from his lips. As played by Richards, his number, “Don’t Give In,” is especially revealing. (Richards is another whose character work is always top-notch.)
A pleasant surprise was the inclusion of popular actor Steve DeBruyne in the production. His is a voice I could listen to all day, and he has plenty of fun with the role of Doctor Berensteiner. And I absolutely laughed out loud at an aside inserted into the script in which he plugs with a quick wink and a nod his own theater company. (That would be The Dio – Dining & Entertainment in Pinckney; check it out when it reopens.)
Others in the cast are Jason Briggs as sympathetic (and handsy) nurse Richard, who knocked me out in “Ain’t Misbehavin’” at the Jewish Ensemble Theatre in 2019. Here, he’s the show’s comic relief and the lone voice of compassion, and he lights up the stage whenever he’s the focus of a scene. Arielle Crosby likely has the strongest, sweetest and most polished singing voice in the show, and she’s a delight in the role of Lisa the homeless woman. Alaina Kerr is perfectly annoying as the waitress whose jabbering helps initiate Gordon’s attack, and later, as mean nurse Nancy. Then there’s Liz Schultz as manager/best-friend Rhoda, a character who simply helps move the story and songs along but doesn’t really contribute much of importance to the plot. (It’s a fine performance in an otherwise un-notable role.)
Most impressive, however are longtime friends and collaborators Richard Payton as Gordon and Vince Kelley as Richard, Gordon’s boyfriend. The two certainly up their already incredible game here, as we watch both individually and together sort through their strained relationship and come out better at the end. But be forewarned: Keep your Kleenex ready, as the power of video closeups magnifies and personalizes their story far better than a stage play ever could. As the saying goes, they “keep it real” – and as such, their audience has ringside seats as the couple’s emotions seep through the lyrics and dialog, and as a result they create real, struggling, and loving people we can identify with as they work through a scary time in their lives.
Staging, camerawork and editing are very good, with only a few minor bumps and bruises along the way (mostly as one scene moves to the next). But it’s a far superior viewing experience than any Zoom production I’ve seen. And lighting effects are an especially notable part of the storytelling, particularly when it comes to Mr. Bungee. (Pay close attention to find out why.)
Will you be able to hum a tune from the show after turning off your computer? Probably not. But you will remember the journey of Gordon and Roger, thanks to Richard and Vince, who tug and tear your heart before sewing it back together with performances both men should be quite proud of.
SHOW INFORMATION: Remaining show dates on demand are June 12, 13, 19 and 20. Tickets are $25 per person. Purchase tickets HERE.