A New Brain

Porchlight Music Theatre Chicago

at the Storefront Theater

Sunday in the Park With George

Pegasus Players

Gordon and George are artists in crisis. Yet Gordon, the gay songwriter hero of A New Brain, seems to have it made: he’s got a handsome boyfriend, a doting mother, supportive friends, and a job writing for Mr. Bungee, the singing-and-dancing frog star of a hit children’s TV show. George, the protagonist of Sunday in the Park With George, is a darling of the museum scene: his high-tech light shows, or “chromolumes,” dazzle viewers at the Art Institute of Chicago.

But the two men feel dried-up, burned out. George, ever on the prowl for funding, finds his time taken up more by politicking than producing work. And when his great-grandmother, a French-born art-world doyenne, reminds him of his artistic lineage–she insists she’s the illegitimate child of Georges Seurat–George denies this intimidating legacy, further stifling his talent by cutting off connection to its wellspring. Only by understanding the behind-the-scenes story of his great-great-grandfather’s masterpiece, Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, can George discover his own artistic mission. As for Gordon, he’s sure that “writing this shit’s killed my talent,” as he says of the inane jingles he churns out for television. (“Frogs have so much spring within them,” one lyric burbles.) But “killed” takes on terrifying new implications when Gordon is struck by a mysterious brain disease and forced to undergo potentially fatal surgery.

These are the premises of two musicals by playwright James Lapine currently playing in town. A New Brain, written with songwriter William Finn, is receiving its Chicago premiere from the recently renamed Porchlight Music Theatre Chicago, which had a deserved hit with the Lapine-Finn Falsettos a couple of years back. And Lapine’s Pulitzer-winning 1984 Sunday in the Park With George, featuring a score by Stephen Sondheim, is enjoying a revival at Pegasus Players.

Musicals are generally regarded as primarily the creations of their composers, but the scripts are just as crucial: a good book writer shapes the characters who inspire the songs and often provides textual ideas a songwriter transforms into lyrics. Though Sunday in the Park With George is widely–and rightly–seen as an expression of Sondheim’s concern with making art that matters despite commercial pressures, it was Lapine who suggested Seurat’s canvas as the subject of a show after he met Sondheim in 1982. The idea was to invent personalities and relationships for the figures in the famous painting of people promenading in a park: a boatman and his dog, a mother holding her young daughter’s hand, a pair of young guardsmen, a woman wearing a flowered hat and carrying a parasol. In Lapine and Sondheim’s hands, these people emerge as foolish, petty, petulant, and irritably hot standing in the sun. From them Lapine and Sondheim developed the tale of how Seurat created his masterpiece, transforming messy, complicated, unsatisfying reality into an exquisite illusion of pristine beauty whose only life results from the vibrant colors of his pointillist technique.

In Lapine and Sondheim’s story, Seurat’s artistic triumph comes at considerable personal expense: obsessed with his vision, he neglects his lover Dot–the model for the woman in the hat–even after she informs him she’s pregnant. She finds affection and security in marriage to a baker, Louis, an artist in his own right but as concerned with pleasing his public as Seurat is oblivious to his. Seurat’s early death cuts short his career; but Dot’s daughter, raised in America, plants a family tree that sprouts into George, who’s not only Seurat’s descendant but perhaps his reincarnation.

A New Brain, meanwhile, is based on composer Finn’s real-life bout with a condition wrongly diagnosed as brain cancer. Struck down in the middle of lunch with his confidant Rhoda, Gordon is put into a hospital. There he’s examined by a smug doctor who doesn’t know what’s wrong with Gordon but is sure he can cure him; visited by an obsequious Christian preacher even though he’s Jewish; tended to by his “nice nurse,” a plump gay man; nurtured by his anxious but determinedly optimistic mother (whose songs feature a musical motif borrowed from Mama Rose in Gypsy); and comforted by his preppy lover, Roger, who adores sex, food, and sailing–not necessarily in that order. Gordon is also visited by hallucinations of Mr. Bungee, the most neurotic and ill-tempered kiddie-show star since Chuckles the Chipmunk in A Thousand Clowns. Happily, Gordon’s brush with death rejuvenates his creativity and his joyful appreciation of the people in his life, empowering him to write “stories of passion, stories of friendship,…stories of living, stories of dying and ways we can deal with our fear.”

Gordon’s journey toward emotional and artistic revitalization doesn’t pack the punch of Finn and Lapine’s brilliant Falsettos, which also deals with life-and-death stakes in its portrait of a gay couple impacted by AIDS. But A New Brain is a lively, engaging, quirkily comic ode to the gifts of “time and music” that make life worth living–and worth fighting for. Porchlight’s intimate production features a solid cast that includes Stephen Rader as Gordon, Suzanne Genz as his mother, Rob Lindley as Roger, Todd Yearton as the nurse, Mark Mavetz as Mr. Bungee, and Megan Van De Hey as a homeless woman who offers an odd spiritual solace to Gordon and Roger after their ordeal. Finn’s songs feature straightforward, playfully rhymed lyrics (“So much flotsam / I could plotz! Am / I distressed,” sings Gordon’s mom as she cleans his apartment) and a driving, peppy pop feel (thanks in part to Jason Robert Brown’s vocal arrangements and in part to Eugene Dizon’s crisp musical direction). Kevin Bellie’s choreography includes a white-gloved homage to Bob Fosse, whose film All That Jazz also dramatized an artist’s near fatal illness. And Robbie Hayes’s ingenious set consists of a blue stairway whose large steps are supported by coiled yellow springs, the perfect visual metaphor for this bouncy show.

Sunday in the Park With George is a richer, deeper work than A New Brain: its gaze extends beyond its hero’s personal problems to wide-ranging concerns with the nature of art and its role in our lives–as a commodity, a focus of social activity, and a source of spiritual enrichment. Sondheim’s heartfelt, simple, yet artfully arranged lyrics could have come from the pen of his mentor Oscar Hammerstein: “Anything you do / Let it come from you / Then it will be new.” But no one except Sondheim could have penned the shimmering, lustrous harmonies and soaring melodies that support these lyrics, conveying a rare passion for life that gives George’s situation a universal urgency.

Director Gareth Hendee–a Lapine protege who staged Pegasus Players’ world premiere of Muscle last season and oversaw the wonderful touring version of the Lapine-directed Dirty Blonde that played at the Shubert earlier this year–has put together a solid non-Equity production that falls somewhat short of the work’s rapturous potential but is still a worthy rendition of fiendishly complex material. The ensemble–including Joel Sutliffe as George, Sara C. Walsh as Dot, and Sara Minton as Seurat’s mother–is in fine voice (though musical director Jon Steinhagen’s offstage orchestra sounds muffled), and visual designers Jack Magaw (set) and Peter Ksander (lights) nicely re-create the lush texture of the Seurat canvas on Pegasus’s sprawling stage.

“Art isn’t easy,” as Sunday in the Park With George reminds us; and the hard-earned accomplishments of this impressive production offer the opportunity to experience one of modern musical theater’s most difficult and beautiful works.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Vic Bider. Michael Brosilow.