February 2, 2023
Ithaca, NY | 36°F


Life and death themes define intricate musical

In the most recent production on Ithaca College’s main stage, the characters suggest that the fear of death might be better tackled through an appreciation of life — complete with singing, dancing and flashing jazz hands.

“A New Brain,” the last musical to be performed this season, is composer William Finn’s autobiographical account loosely based on his personal near-death experience with a terminal brain illness.

Sophomore Ben Fankhauser plays Gordon Schwinn, a young, gay songwriter employed to write songs for the “oceanic and satanic” Mr. Bungee (senior Jeffrey Schara), a children’s television entertainer who dons a frog costume.

Gordon’s frustration with composing music for Mr. Bungee eventually leads to his hospitalization, where he finds out he must have brain surgery performed or risk dying with his greatest songs left unwritten.

Director and associate professor, Susannah Berryman, said the music that surrounds Gordon’s debilitating situation spans a wide variety of emotions.

“The music is urgent, varied, catchy, interesting and some of it is really goose-bumpy,” she said.

The music of “A New Brain” is the collaborative effort of Broadway composer William Finn and arranger Jason Robert Brown.

Senior Meredith Beck, who plays Gordon’s agent Rhoda who is secretly in love with Gordon, said the music of the show is what audiences will respond to the most. Beck said the musical score encompasses many different genres and musical styles.

“This music is the most difficult I’ve ever had to sing,” she said. “There are no accidents in it. William Finn is a genius, the way he wrote it.”

Senior Jeremy Reese, who plays the overweight “nice nurse” Richard, said his experience singing with the cast was a rewarding challenge.

“We’re a really tight cast, and it’s really tight harmonies, but when they are together, they’re incredible,” he said.

Senior stage manager Victoria Sheehan said hearing the music from behind the scenes was an emotional experience for her.

“When I found out I was on the show, I put the music on and it started to resonate,” she said. “It either makes you think of that which you have lost, or it makes you realize what you could lose.”

A sung-through musical like “A New Brain” presents specific challenges to choreographers because singers must be able to move and sing effectively. Adam Pelty, assistant professor of theater arts, choreographed the show and said the nature of the play called for more expressive movement than actual dance.

“It’s not a dance show, so it’s musical staging mostly,” he said.

Beck said Pelty’s choreography integrated with the set design and over all production concept as well.

“The show is a lot like a puzzle,” she said. “It’s really cool feeling like you’re almost on a chess board, and where you are, what you’re saying and singing and the direction you’re facing all mean something.”

Even with all the complex music, design and concept of the show, Berryman said the cast and crew’s dedication to the production has led to a process of putting the show up free of many complications.

“This has been a very smooth and positive production process, and it has felt blessedly obstacle free,” she said.

Keith Byron Kirk, an original cast member of the off-Broadway musical, will attend Friday’s performance and lead a discussion afterwards, as well as an open forum at 4 p.m. in the Clark Theatre.

Berryman said she wants the play to affect audience members in a new and exciting way, especially for the cast’s special guest.

“I hope their breathing will change many times over the course of the play,” she said. “If a performance can alter an audience’s neuromuscular response patterns, we’ll know we’re doing something.”

“A New Brain” will be performed at 8 p.m. on March 26 to 28, 31, and April 1 to 4, with matinee performances offered at 2 p.m. March 28, 29 and April 4, in the Clark Theatre at Dillingham Center.