Heart and Music: “A New Brain” Opens at UNC

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Mohin Riego de Dios (Center) and the cast of “A New Brain” take their final
bow after a performance. Scenic design by Heather Holtgreive, costume design by
Angelica Walters and lighting design by Matt Pappas.

When you first walk into the Norton Theatre for a performance of “A New Brain,” produced by the University of Northern Colorado’s School of Theatre Arts and Dance, you are sure to immersed into the story completely. A lone piano sits in the corner, just itching to make beautiful music. And that’s exactly what you get for the next ninety minutes: a heart wrenching and hopeful story performed by the best musical and acting talent that UNC has to offer.

“A New Brain,” first performed in 1998 and written by Broadway composer William Finn, is a semi-autobiographical tale told through song. It follows Gordon Schwinn, a struggling composer who longs to express the true music in his heart. Things take a turn for the worse when Gordon collapses and is rushed to the hospital, where he finds out a genetic disease is affecting his brain. What follows is the harrowing experience that Gordon endures in the hospital, his friends and loved ones that come to support him and a firsthand experience of the healing power of art.

The UNC production of Finn’s work brings many new ideas center stage. It is presented in the Norton Theatre, a 100-seat black box constructed in the 1990s. There is seating for the audience on all sides, and actors enter from the corners of the theatre. This makes for a truly immersive experience that feels more grounded in realism than it would in a standard proscenium theater.

The walls of the theater are lined with postings and infographics like those you’d find in a hospital, where the bulk of the show takes place. In the corner is Gordon’s cluttered apartment, complete with an overflowing bookshelf and a spinet piano, where music director and accompanist Victor Walters gives beautiful backing to there entire show.

Fittingly, there is an eye-catching mural of a brain on the center stage floor. Assistant professor of musical theatre and director of “A New Brain,” Carrie Klofach, explained that that was one of the first aspects of the set that she visualized. She says she saw it as an MRI scan of a brain.

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“I felt that it needed to be represented,” Klofach said.

Everyone involved gave extremely strong performances. Lily Schmoker, a fourth-year musical theatre major, portrays Mimi Schwinn, Gordon’s overbearing mother. In the latter half of the show, Schmoker delivers a heart-wrenching and beautiful rendition of “The Music Still Plays On,” where Mimi reflects on the people in her life that are no longer there, and that life still continues anyway.

Conner Graves, a second-year acting and theatre studies major, portrays Mr. Bungee, Gordon’s tyrannical boss and host of a children’s TV show for which he dresses up like a frog. Graves is able to capture the humor of Bungee with grace and elegance, whether he appears in-person or as a figment of Gordon’s imagination.

“It’s a wonderful show to be a part of and it’s truly an honor to be able to perform it,” Graves said. “I just feel so whole.”

The turnaround for this production was quick. Rehearsals started only a month ago, on the first day of the semester. Klofach said that the short rehearsal time for the production was stressful yet beneficial, as it allowed the actors to explore new components of their characters that they hadn’t considered before.

“The hardest part was the quick rehearsal pace,” Klofach said. “But the rewarding part, on the opposite side of that, was that actors were forced to make decisions.”

One of the most fulfilling aspects for the cast is getting to explore and deepen their relationship with the characters, even after they start performances. Anders Arneson, a third-year musical theatre major who portrays Richard in the show, said he enjoys being able to learn more about his character every time he performs.

“Tonight went great,” Arneson said. “I thought there were so many wonderful new discoveries made, and there’s a bunch of new discoveries every single night, so come!”

If you haven’t had a chance to see “A New Brain” yet, it’s not too late. There are performances Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m., and a matinee performance Sunday at 2:00 p.m. Tickets can be purchased here, or at the door of the Norton Theatre if seating remains.

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