It was a very special occasion at the recent opening of Masquerade Theatre’s musical production, “A New Brain,” directed by Phillip Duggins. The show’s Tony Award-winning composer, William Finn, had come all the way from New York for the Houston opening of this intriguing musical based on his own real-life battle with brain cancer and the ultimate triumph that allowed him to recover and continue writing the many songs he had feared he might never compose. If this does not sound like a topic that could be turned into a pleasant and enlightening Broadway show, guess again.
As is so often the case at Masquerade, the cast of regulars was vocally strong. Singing better than ever in the lead role of Gordo, Luther Chakurian captures not only the musical fire of the piece, but its poignancy as well. Alison Sumrall provides a wonderfully brassy Rhoda, and Monica Passley is in pleasing voice as the waitress. Lest the content become too serious, there are pleasant musical distractions like the Homeless Lady, amusingly played by talented Masquerade regular, Rebekah Dahl. The full company is as superb as ever in the ensemble work of touching songs like “Heart and Music.” Who needs Broadway when Houston sounds this good?
David Higginbotham, in the role of Dr. Berensteiner, shows his flair for comedy during an amusing “Trouble in His Brain” trio with Sumrall and Stephanie Bradow (playing Gordo’s mother). Speaking of Bradow, she shows that she is a real vocal “belter” in songs like “Mother’s Gonna Make Things Fine.” Things lighten up in “Mr. Rogers” style with the hilarious “Be Polite” sung by children’s T.V. star, Mr. Bungee (humorously portrayed by Russell Freeman).
Enter handsome Ilich Guardiola in the role of Gordo’s beloved, Roger. Their sweet duet of “Sailing” was a touching highlight of the score. Also worthy of note was the production’s fine chamber orchestra, neatly tucked away above the stage, and never overwhelming the cast. The fun continues as nurse Richard (Kory Kilgore) and nurse Nancy (Laura Gray) join Gordo and his mother for the jazzy nonsense of “Family History.” Doubling as the show’s choreographer, Miss Gray also deserves credit for the cute dancing in this segment. I glanced over at composer Finn who was seated in the same row as I. He was applauding enthusiastically but not laughing with the audience. We can safely assume he already knew all the jokes. And there was plenty of wit and black humor in songs like “Sitting Becalmed…” “Poor, Unsuccessful and Fat,” “M.R.I. Day,” “Craniotomy,” and Mr. Bungee’s riotous “Yes.”
There is a poignant clash of mother and son with “In the Middle of the Room,” and Bradow brings motherly desperation to her tour de forcerendition of “Throw It Out.” Roger and the Homeless Lady do a touchingly sad duet of “A Really Lousy Day in the Universe,” and Gordo and the full cast do a haunting tango ballet of “Brain Dead” under the lush rose lighting of designer, Duggins. Fans of tongue twisters should not miss the very glib delivery in Rhoda’s “Whenever I Dream” with Gordo, and nurse Richard’s “Eating Myself Alive,” choreographed for the ensemble with ancient Egyptian flair. Mr. Higginbotham doubles as the production’s costume designer and has Mr. Bungee in a comical frog suit when he sings the “Don’t Give In,” that brings Gordo out of his coma.
Sparkling in black sequins, Bradow shines in more ways than one as she sings the lovely “The Music Still Plays On.” Declaring that “Love is here, and then it’s gone. The music still plays on,” the song was a perfect lead-in for the evening’s rousing finale, “Time and Music.” Thank goodness destiny gave composer, Finn, the time he needed to give us such glorious music.
The Masquerade Theatre is located at 1537 N. Shepherd in the Heights. (Minutes from the Durham / N. Shepherd exit of loop 610). “A New Brain” is performed, Fridays & Saturdays @ 8pm through March 13th. There will be a Sunday matinee at 2 p.m. March 8th. Tickets are $26 for adults and $21 for seniors / students. For information or reservations call 713-861-7045 or visit www.masqueradetheatre.com.
(The Courier 3.5.04)