Front Porch Theatricals, the boutique theater company now in its seventh season, has been offering Pittsburgh audiences the chance to see socially relevant, lesser-known musicals since its first production, the locally written and composed “Only Me” in 2009.
Now, with “A New Brain,” which runs May 18-27 at the New Hazlett Theater, Front Porch is primed to continue its tradition of bringing to the Steel City high-quality, colorful shows, using local talent.
“A New Brain,” which was first produced off-Broadway in 1998, is a largely autobiographical musical by Jewish composer William Finn along with James Lapine (“Falsettos”). It sets to musical score the story of a composer’s brush with mortality resulting from an arteriovenous malformation — a tangle of abnormal blood vessels connecting arteries and veins in the brain — and the healing power of art.
Like Finn, the protagonist in the show, Gordon Schwinn, is Jewish, and the musical explores his brush with the possibility of death and his concerns that he may not live long enough to complete his work.
As with its previous productions, the creative team at Front Porch was intentional in selecting a show that features a multiplicity of character types, and was likewise intentional in its casting.
“There is a diversity of characters and cast in this show, which reflects our city and our society,” said Leon Zionts, who is a founding producer at Front Porch along with his wife, Nancy Zionts, and Bruce E.G. Smith. “We’re trying to be more mindful of that; it’s part of our mission of inclusiveness.”
The show is being directed by Pittsburgh native Connor McCanlus, who said “A New Brain” has been on his “bucket list” of directing projects.
“I have loved this show since later middle school or early high school,” McCanlus said. “The reason why I connect to the show is it’s about an artist who is struggling to make art while living his life. I haven’t suffered from what Gordon is going through, but I have had to experience having to make art while life is throwing you curveballs.”
“A New Brain” is about using “trauma to create something beautiful,” he added. “And I think by keeping these characters Jewish, William Finn is celebrating his own culture and how his culture has influenced him as an artist and a person.”
“I don’t think it is every day that someone goes to see a musical about someone having trouble with their brain and needing brain surgery,” he said. “It’s not ‘Oklahoma.’”
Yet “A New Brain,” he continued, still covers the “same kinds of topics and themes as other theater: family, heart, relationships and dealing with one’s own mortality.”
Wascavage grew up near Wilkes-Barre, Pa., and attended Point Park University in Pittsburgh. After graduating in 2010, he moved to New York City, and has landed roles internationally.
“I always love coming back to Pittsburgh,” he said. “It feels so familiar.”
The role of Gordon Schwinn particularly resonates for Wascavage, who finds “so many wonderful parallels between this role and my life,” he said. A cancer scare following college forced him, like his character, to face his “own mortality.”
“That’s a heavy load to bear,” especially for someone in his early 20s, he said. “It was only a scare, but even having to slightly deal with your mortality” gives insight into an “intricate, delicate and part of humanity that is universal.”
Gordon, he said, reminds him of Charles Dickens’ Ebenezer Scrooge, as the show has him taking a “step back to look at his life and his choices.”
“At the end of the show, he has to decide, if he does live, will he continue to live life like he was, or treat it like the precious gift that it is,” said Wascavage. “All these themes are heavy, but there is so much heart and so much joy in the show.” PJC
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.