November 28, 2006

A Flair for the Dramatic

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“You gotta have heart and music …” What more could you possibly need in life? For Gordon Schwinn, an uninspired composer writing songs for a children’s television show that stars a giant frog decked out in a green and purple tux, it’s a more fulfilling outlet for his musical talent. Oh, and also a new brain.
These two dilemmas provide the plot of William Finn’s musical A New Brain, directed by theater arts major Josh Burlingham ’08 and performed two weekends ago by the Melodramatics, Cornell’s student-run theatre company. Based on Finn’s personal struggle with brain cancer, the musical presents what could be a very depressing subject in a humorous and at times outrageous light.
Devlin Shand, a sophomore drama major at Ithaca College, perfectly portrays the trials and tribulations of a man who might not live to see the next day. Gordon continues to stress over his career and his relationships even as a maniacal doctor, IC freshman Omar Najmi, gleefully tells Gordon that a high-risk “craniotomy” must be performed in order to save his life. While Gordon’s mother Mimi, played by Jill McCoy ’09, assures her son that “mother’s gonna make things fine,” the composer can’t help but think that he’s wasted his life writing meaningless songs for a TV show — he could have been out there writing the next great American symphony. The giant frog (a.k.a. Mr. Bungee), speaking as Gordon’s conscience, hounds both the composer’s thoughts and the stage as he gloats over the songwriter’s failure to amount to anything, and for extra kicks calls him “untalented.”
The characters of A New Brain dish out their advice to Gordon in this operatic musical (think Rent and Les Miserables) while stealing solos to confess their own worries. During the song “Sailing,” Gordon’s partner Roger (IC sophomore Eric Carsia) longs to be on a boat instead of by a hospital bed as he wistfully sings, “Sex is good, but I’d rather be sailing.” However, Roger later realizes how much he stands to lose if Gordon’s surgery goes awry in “A Really Lousy Day in the Universe.” Michelle Strucke, an IC senior, gave one of the strongest performances of the night as a homeless lady, helping Roger through his distress in her gruff and world-weary way.
Other notable numbers included “Throw It Out,” in which Mimi violently rids her son’s apartments of all his books that she believes are the cause of Gordon’s brain trouble. McCoy commanded the stage with such emotional force that she had the audience squirming in their seats, willing Mimi’s breakdown to take itself offstage.
To counteract such emotionally heavy scenes were lighter ones such as “Poor, Unsuccessful and Fat,” an accurate description of Richard, the male nurse (Cornell’s Daniel Kerr) who feels he is even worse off than Gordon. “Gordo’s Law of Genetics,” a hereditary manifestation of Murphy’s Law, drew multiple laughs out of the audience as the ensemble depicted some of the more undesirable traits that inevitably pass down from generation to generation (Mimi, always the righteous one, pins Gordon’s flaws on his father’s side of the family).
Overall, the musical provided an evening full of both laughs and deep thoughts. Justin Leader, the show’s producer and founder of the Melodramatics, expressed his appreciation at being able to put on a production that “needed to be done.” Thanks to sufficient funding from the SAFC and the Cornell theater department, Leader felt that he was able to choose a more thought-provoking show instead of one that would be a sure crowd-pleaser and moneymaker. Leader emphasized his belief that lesser known shows like A New Brain deserve a chance to be performed. Luckily for the production, the intimacy of Risley Theatre provided a perfect venue for the eleven-member cast and small-sized band. With the amazing talent drawing from Cornell, Ithaca College and the Ithaca community, there was nothing to stop the production’s success.
To say the talent was exceptional is no exaggeration. The voices, worthy of a Broadway stage, represented some of the best that Cornell and Ithaca College have to offer. When asked if Cornell students ever expressed resentment over the fact that many Ithaca College students are cast in the Melodramatics productions, Leader replied that he believed people understood that his wish was to make a show the best it could be. Judging by the standing ovation at the end of the performance and the triumphant smiles of the cast, there is no doubt that Leader achieved his goal.