A New Brain – Squabbalogic

Sydney is very lucky to have a group like Squabbalogic, the since-2006 independent music theatre company who aims to present premiere productions of the best fringe, independent, and Off-Broadway works yet to be seen by Sydney audiences.

Presented by: Squabbalogic by special arrangement with Dominie Pty. Ltd.Venue: Sidetrack Theatre, Marrickville Thursday, 27 October, 2011
A New BrainSydney is very lucky to have a group like Squabbalogic, the since-2006 independent music theatre company who aims to present premiere productions of the best fringe, independent, and Off-Broadway works yet to be seen by Sydney audiences. It’s a noble and enviable mission statement, but it’s more than that. It’s a delight for everyone in Sydney who can experience their productions, and it’s a revelation, because Squabbalogic gets it right.
The company is currently following up the runaway success of their 2010 and 2011 seasons of [title of show] with acclaimed writer William Finn’s (Falsettos, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee) most biographical work A New Brain. And it is a perfect fit. Written in collaboration with celebrated talent James Lapine (Into The Woods, Sunday in the Park With George), the show is a heartfelt, exuberant exploration of a serious medical emergency, presented by impeccable actors and directed with a the inspiring, steady eye of Craig Stewart. 
Inspired by Finn’s life-threatening experience comes the story of Gordon Schwinn. Gordon (Gavin Leahy) is a composer for despotic children’s TV Host Mr. Bungee (Jay James-Moody) who is struggling with the task of having to write songs about Frogs. You see, it’s distracting him from his real music. It isn’t until he collapses at lunch with his best friend and agent Rhoda (Keira Daley) that we realise that he might have bigger problems. As we follow Gordon through his hospital experiences, including brush-ins with nurses of polarising dispositions, the laugh-out-loud taking down of the ‘Family History’, the discomfort of the MRI machine, and how exactly you say goodbye to a family member who won’t admit something is actually wrong, what we are really seeing is an examination of the human life that, ultimately, becomes a celebration of our very human struggles and fragilities. 
Gordon’s hospital stay is littered with delusions of his unhinged boss, of larger than life scenarios, and as soon as you start thinking you’ll never stop laughing at Moody’s hilariously bizarre, bug-eyed, four-eyed Mr Bungee, from the middle of nowhere comes a line – a solo – a patiently compassionate look – and collectively the audience is on the verge of tears. 
The show couldn’t walk that careful line of gravity and liberating humour without an exceptional cast, and this cast is more than exceptional; this cast produces a flawlessly entertaining theatrical experience. Alex Ash’s musical direction creates stunning harmony and strong ensemble performance, and the clarity of sound at the Sidetrack theatre, with sound design by Jessica Burns, added to the power of the vocals.
Shondelle Pratt’s Homeless Lady combines Shakespearean Fool-like wisdom with effortless charisma, particularly in ‘Change’. Her physical comedy is a treat, as is Mark Sippel’s in the role of the crooning, beaming, skinny-jeaned Minister. Garth Saville’s Doctor Jafar Berensteiner’s strength comes in his ability to shift from serious doctor mode into utter absurdity and he should be congratulated for it. 
Mark Simpson, “nice nurse” Richard, received some of the biggest applause in the house after his late show number ‘Eating Myself Up Alive’, bringing a wink and a nod to the character, and his “mean nurse” counterpart Laura Murphy as the Waitress and Nancy D delivered strong vocals and strong comic timing; an absolute talent to watch.
The emotional core of the show lay in, fittingly, the characters closest to suffering composer Gordon Schwinn. Keira Daley displays a terrific diversity as a very funny, very likable Rhoda. But the beating heart beyond all the hallucinations, the emotional depth of love and sadness for a life hanging in the balance, was balanced most admirably by Beth Daly’s powerful mother Mimi Schwinn, who could make you laugh with a look, with the comedy in misplaced dignity, or usher in a compelling poignancy (‘The Music Still Plays On’). Blake Ericksen as Gordon’s partner Roger wears the heart of the show on his sleeve and he must be loved for it. From the captivating ‘I’d Rather Be Sailing’ through to ‘A Really Lousy Day in the Universe’ and ‘Time’, Ericksen proves himself to be exceedingly talented actor as well as vocalist. 
And Gavin Leahy, in the centre of it all (or, more fittingly, ‘In The Middle of the Room’) bears a dry humour, an occasional charmingly apparent abandonment of his wits, and a careful, understated vulnerability. A vehicle for the show, he carries it with grace and elevates the cast around him to produce spectacular performances across the board. 
The show, for all it will literally make you laugh and cry, is ultimately joyous. It’s a celebration of life, yes, but it’s also a celebration of art within a life. With the economic downturn leaving the fate of large-scale musicals in question, Sydney, we already have the answer. We’re not missing anything, because we have this company. Now more than ever Sydney needs Squabbalogic. They are producing music theatre of the highest quality with complete authenticity, professionalism, and the best and strongest local talent. 
Sydney, we need A New Brain. Don’t miss it. For bookings & more information visit  www.sidetrack.com.au or www.squabbalogic.com  Photo by Scott Clare 

Cassie Tongue

Cassie is a theatre critic and arts writer in Sydney, and was the deputy editor of AussieTheatre. She has written for The Guardian, Time Out Sydney, Daily Review, and BroadwayWorld Australia. She is a voter for the Sydney Theatre Awards.

Cassie Tongue

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