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Singing with unexpected charm about ‘A New Brain’

Surrounding the hospital bed of Gordon Schwinn (Chase Heinemann) are Colin Schreier (from left), Liz Norton, and Tyler Franklin in the William Finn musical, "A New Brain," at Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre. | Dan La Prairie

If you have never seen a show at the current Rogers Park storefront home to Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre now is the time to do so, for several reasons.

Highly recommended
When: Through Oct. 29
Where: Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre, 6970 N. Glenwood
Tickets: $29 – $59 (additional $25 for dinner)
Info: www.theo-u.org
Run time: 2 hours and 10 minutes, with one intermission

First, this is the last season the company will be performing in what I have long considered “a magic space.” Next fall it will be moving to a larger, more modern (and unquestionably well-deserved) new home about a mile away on Howard Street. In addition, its current show, “A New Brain,” composer-lyricist William Finn’s richly funny, poignant, winningly absurd and quasi-autobiograpical musical is a true gem. Finally, this production of the infrequently revived show — brilliantly directed by Fred Anzevino, and featuring the ever-spectacular musical direction of Jeremy Ramey — exemplifies the theater’s consistent gift for launching the careers of young musical theater performers who are often still in school but already possessed of immense talent.

Chase Heinemann plays Gordon and Veronica Garza is the The Homeless Lady in Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre’s production of “A New Brain.”| Dean La Prairie

Finn’s story (self-penned, in collaboration with James Lapine) begins as his doppelganger, Gordon Schwinn (Chase Heinemann), a young, New York-based songwriter, sits down at his piano and, urged on by his friend and agent, Rhoda (Tyler Franklin), struggles to write yet another inane song for his paying job with Mr. Bungee (Andy Brown), the obnoxious host of a TV show for kids. The song’s title, “Frogs Have So Much Spring Within Them,” suggests the gently caustic form of humor that comes naturally to Gordon, a bright, literate guy who has yet to forge the more serious musical theater career he dreams about.

Then, right in the middle of lunch with Rhoda (and a song titled “Calamari”), Gordon collapses and is rushed to a hospital emergency room where a doctor renders a diagnosis by way of the song, “Trouble Is His Brain.” In fact, Gordon’s doctor (Kyle Ryan) informs him that he is suffering from a potentially fatal arteriovenous malformation in his brain stem that requires immediate surgery. But before the risky surgery the other important people in his life arrive at his bedside.

They include: His partner, Roger (Colin Schreier), an avid sailor often unreachable at sea (who sings the haunting “I’d Rather Be Sailing”); his mother Mimi (Liz Norton), the quintessential Jewish mother, possessed of boundless love and optimism when it comes to her son; and his mostly absent and feckless father (cleverly embodied by the same actor who plays Mr. Bungee). Among his new friends is his very funny, self-deprecating nurse, Richard (Tommy Bullington), who blithely sings of being “Poor, Unsuccessful and Fat.”

Throughout, Gordon and others are approached by The Homeless Woman (Veronica Garza), an aggressive pan-handler who specializes in “guilting” people as she asks for handouts and rants about “A Really Lousy Day in the Universe” along with Roger, and a minister (Danny Dwayne Wells II) offers prayers, even if his patient is not from his flock.

There is plenty of anxiety, sadness and rage in this story, but the big surprise is the degree to which humor, wit and love become the dominant forces driving its characters and the show’s more than 30 immensely charming and superbly rendered songs, with Gordon’s determination to leave an artistic legacy not unlike that of the leading character in “Rent.”

Anzevino has assembled a fabulous cast whose vocal power, acting chops and ensemble cohesion suggests long years of experience. Yet Heinemann just graduated from the Chicago College for the Performing Arts at Roosevelt University, Schreier is making his Chicago debut, and Franklin is currently a junior at Columbia College — and all are exceptional. So is Norton, a Milwaukee-based veteran and force-of-nature performer, and Garza, who strutted her formidable stuff last season in “Tonya and Nancy: The Rock Opera,” earning a Jeff Award for her bravura turn as both girls’ mothers.

And of course there is Ramey, who invariably turns a piano into a one-man orchestra, and is powerfully backed by Sarah Younker (French horn), Anthony Parsons (reeds) and Carlos Mendoza (drums) in this wholly captivating production.

Richard (Tommy Bullington), a nurse, tends to Gordon (Chase Heinemann), in the Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre production of “A New Brain.” | Dean La Prairie