New Brain; New Club

While a brain tumor leads to a lively musical at one company, a lightweight comedy kicks off another company's existence

A new local theater company filled with familiar faces has just launched with Neil Simon's featherlight comedy The Sunshine Boys.

That's exactly the sort of happy show Kevin Johnson would never do; when he was a kid, he imagined moving the finale of Annie back to the orphanage and making the whole Daddy Warbucks thing a dream. This weekend, his Arizona Onstage Productions will open its production of A New Brain, a lively musical about a man diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor.

The character's brain trouble turns out to be even more complicated than that, as does the tone of the show, which swings from bitingly comic to ironic to something approaching sweet melancholy. How many musicals turn a term like "arterial venous malformation" into song lyrics? This one does; it's a show with music and lyrics by William Finn and book by Finn and James Lapine. These are the guys responsible for Falsettoland, the first full-scale presentation by Arizona Onstage Productions, which has followed that up during the past couple of seasons with Assassins, Stephen Sondheim's musical about president killers, and Ruthless, a viciously funny showbiz send-up. They also wrote the current surprise Broadway hit The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.

Finn's A New Brain springs from the Sondheim mold, with 95 minutes of continuous singing, "most of it in really hard four- or five-part harmony," says Johnson. "William Finn is a sadist for singers."

This promises to be the company's most technically demanding production so far. There's an MRI machine that turns into a sailboat, and just about everything is on wheels, including a bed that tended to break down in rehearsals. "Well, when you have six people in a single bed, spinning around and singing, what do you expect?" asks Johnson.

The semi-autobiographical story has Gordon, Finn's alter ego, not only facing death but fearing that he'll die without having written the authentic music in his heart; he makes his living composing dopey song for a children's TV program starring a frog.

As usual with a William Finn show, there are serious issues and complicated human relationships in play, but the lyrics are exceptionally witty, and the music is catchy. It's a work that Johnson has wanted to produce ever since he founded Arizona Onstage Productions, but it took time to find the right actors--particularly someone to portray Gordon's Jewish mother. "You can't have an 18-year-old college student playing a woman with all these life experiences," he says. "Betty Craig is exactly what I wanted for this character, and she's just tearing through the material."

Johnson persuaded recent UA drama graduate Ben Crawford to stick around Tucson for a couple of extra months to play Gordon. "All the characters he's played here are bold and brassy--Billy Bigelow, John Wilkes Booth, things like that. I talked him into doing this because playing this frail gay man would be good variety for his résumé."

Johnson has high praise for the director, Carol Calkins. "When she's directing," he says, "as an actor, you don't become the character, but she makes you really love the person you play; she's getting performances that are totally real."

A bit too real, perhaps. "The cast is really emotionally connected to this material," he says. "I've never seen so many run-throughs with so much bawling at the end."

Nobody will be mopping up tears at the new Top Hat Theatre Club in Winterhaven Square. The company's founder, James Mitchell Gooden, vows to produce nothing but comedies and comedy-mysteries.

"There isn't any pretending that it's great art," admits Gooden. "The chaos in the world right now is kind of dictating that we do funny material. People want to think less about the world condition when they go to the theater, and be challenged a little less and entertained a lot more."

Gooden founded and ran Live Theatre Workshop, but withdrew from that company two years ago. "I did Live Theatre Workshop for nine years, and it was a great experience, but it was just time to move on," he says. In the interim, he's been performing comic musical melodramas at Gaslight Theatre. "Yes, you can live off Gaslight," he says. "Not very well, but almost."

Meanwhile, Gooden has amassed either enough cash or a good-enough credit rating to start Top Hat Theatre Club, a for-profit enterprise. "I knew when I left Live Theatre Workshop that I'd most likely do another project similar to it, and now the planets and the stars have all lined up, and away we go."

The company's debut show, Neil Simon's The Sunshine Boys, is typical of projected future productions. It's a light comedy about two old theater partners who broke up rather acrimoniously but now are lured back into a reunion. "It says something about friendship and separation and reconciliation," Gooden notes. The show happens to reunite Gooden, who directs the piece and plays one of the characters, with actors he knew in his Live Theatre Workshop days, Bruce Bieszki and Brian Wees.

As at LTW, Gooden is setting up Top Hat--he wanted a name with showbiz glitz--in a strip-mall storefront. And he's opening up now so he can build an audience before autumn's heavier competition for ticket buyers. After Sunshine Boys, Gooden is planning six-week runs of Agatha Christie's Ten Little Indians, Simon's The Good Doctor, and at Christmastime, Gooden's own one-man adaptation of Charles Dickens' Pickwick Papers.

Gooden says he's confident that there's a big theater audience in Tucson; what the city lacks is enough shows for them. In launching Top Hat Theatre Club, he's heartened by the strength of such companies as LTW, Invisible Theatre and Gaslight.

"We firmly believe that the Tucson audience is gong to recognize Top Hat as a place to come and have a good time," says Gooden. "There's also a great Mexican restaurant here."

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