By Julie Peterson
Let's lay some cards on the table, here: I'm not crazy about traditional, mid-century, Rodgers-and-Hammerstein-style musical theater. I'm also not crazy about more recent spectaculars like Andrew Lloyd Webber's.
It's not that I think less of those genres; it's just that musical theater has so many challenging components that when even one of the pistons isn't firing, it's so much worse than any other kind of bad art that I've developed a perpetual pre-emptive cringe when I sit down to watch it.
Even if the bad singing, dancing, acting, directing, choreography, sound design, costuming, accompaniment, or scenic art doesn't ultimately manifest itself (trust me, it usually does), the cringe impairs my ability to enjoy what I'm led to believe is perfectly decent mainstream entertainment.
So when I come across a musical theater artist whose creations delight me so much that I'm willing to leave my cringe at the door and give everyone (including myself) the benefit of the doubt, it's a big freaking deal in my life. Nowadays most theatergoers have at least heard of Avenue Q, Angels in America, and Urinetown, but the original offbeat, snarky, hyper-literate, queer-friendly Renaissance man, in my opinion, is William Finn, composer/lyricist of the Falsettos trilogy and, most recently, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.
I could go on and on about Finn, but I've a current fish to fry.
Artists' Theatre Project, informally known as @Pro, has built their reputation by programming on the daring side (especially for the Valley) and mounting energetic, respectable, low-budget productions of small musicals (or at least musicals that are small by necessity, by the time they get to the hanky-size stage of Soul Invictus Gallery & Cabaret).
I haven't seen one of their shows in a few years, so I was looking forward to a fairly cringe-free evening of competent spunkiness at @Pro's production of William Finn and James Lapine's A New Brain, presented through November 30.
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Brain is Finn's most intensely autobiographical work to date. The plot revolves around Gordon Schwinn, a gay, Jewish composer who collapses during lunch with his agent and is found to have a congenital arteriovenous malformation that requires immediate brain surgery. (Pretty much exactly what happened to Finn in 1992.) It's not a supremely popular play -- go figure -- so I was additionally excited to have it right here in town.
My companion and I were delighted with the show. The cast of 10 is packed with strong, skillful vocalists -- most of the leads could singlehandedly carry a recital of art songs or an evening of cocktail piano with no problem at all. Aimee Lucus' choreography respected the space and the performers' skills to the point that neither restriction even crossed my mind during the dance numbers. These folks' unselfconscious enthusiasm should be a given on any stage, but it's rare in reality, so it's even more refreshing here.
The show's recorded keyboard-as-orchestra accompaniment is a weak spot, but it was noticeably awful only when low-register "instruments" kicked in and it sounded like an annoying car stereo cruising by out on Grand Avenue.
Jimmy Asimenios, a dimpled cutie who also directed, plays Gordon with a self-deprecating vulnerability that moves from humble to pissed-off when he's faced with death or, even worse for him, the loss of his gift.
Kimberlee Hart, as Lisa the Homeless Lady, is a standout in a great ensemble. Her warm, resonant belt made it impossible to overlook her character's complex status as metaphor, hallucination, and comic relief. I wish I could have perceived those levels of nuance more in the other performances, but this is a complicated, mostly-sung show, and I can't complain about the engaging, believable, three-dimensional characters we do see.
Kraig Amendt's set is a monochrome dollop of flexibility, and the multitasking actors kept the scene changes nice and quick. (I would lose Lisa's pile of trash and graffiti outside the proscenium, though -- it adds nothing and makes it look as though there wasn't time to clean the theater.)
And if you're a theater company with no time and no money, please, please, please follow @Pro's example and use a simple set like this that recedes into the background. You're shooting yourself in the foot with an ugly painted backdrop and undressed fake rooms. Same with costumes, which were, in this Brain, subdued, appropriate, attractive, and tidy, all at once. (And also uncredited, which generally means everyone worked together super-hard to get the look.)
'Cause honestly, theater is like a lot of other enterprises -- it's more likely to succeed if people know and emphasize their strengths, acknowledge their limitations, and don't make the mistake of doing something complicated half-assed when they should do something simple subtly. I love seeing work by people who've embraced that lesson.
What makes all of this wonderfulness even more wonderful is that we're looking at a labor of love. Community theater actors typically don't get paid more than a rare small stipend that doesn't begin to cover even the cost of gas to get to rehearsals. What directors, musical directors, and stage managers sometimes receive works out to about 62 cents an hour at most, I once calculated. (The financial fate of designers, choreographers, and other staff and crew varies from gig to gig.)
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Over the decades that I've acted, directed, produced, etc. (and I have, so I do promise to make all necessary disclosures here in "Curtains"), it's become harder and harder even to find warm bodies who have the time available to fully cast a show. Frequently, we wind up working with new actors or non-actors (which I find fulfilling and fun, actually, but it's scary, too, when you know people will be paying money to see them).
And particularly this season, it's harder and harder to sell tickets, which is my segue into reminding you to check ShowUp.com when you're looking for theater seats, because you will save at least about $5 per ticket (if a discount is available) and theater companies will be very, very happy to see you. ShowUp.com is also the current authorized vendor for all @Pro tickets, so it's one-stop shopping in their case.
Listen to a 2006 interview with William Finn here. You'll hear more of the true story behind A New Brain and learn how Spelling Bee was developed, the current status of sheet music to Finn's now-almost-apocryphal show Romance in Hard Times -- including one of my favorite songs ever, "You Cannot Let Romance Die," sung by the Duke of Windsor at a soup kitchen in Depression-era New York -- and a bunch of other stuff.
The last three performances of A New Brain are Friday and Saturday, November 28 and 29, at 8 p.m., and Sunday, November 30, at 7 p.m., at Soul Invictus, 1022 Grand Avenue. Tickets are $20; order here or take your chances at the door.