Forget Batman and Robin. We saw “Brill” last night – the world-premiere play at Performance Network Theatre – and can report that the real dynamic duo is Phil Powers (“God of Carnage,” “Drowsy Chaperone”) and Sarah Ann Leahy (“Circle Mirror Transformation”).
The play takes place in 1959 at the world-famous Brill Building in Manhattan, the place where at one time music was conceived, born, nurtured and sent out to earn its way in the world. The Brill was home to song writers, arrangers, demo studios with brilliant musicians, record companies, music publishers, agents and radio promoters. By 1962, the nondescript building at 1619 Broadway contained 165 music businesses. A gifted person could literally think up a song and get it published, recorded and pushed to the airwaves by simply taking a few elevator rides.
Jimmy Wise (Phil Powers) is a veteran song writer from the Big Band era who cares deeply about his craft and understands what it takes to write a smash hit. He just hasn’t been able to do it for a few years. Margie Lesser (Sarah Ann Leahy) is a lovely 19-year-old girl who shows up unannounced in his office with her guitar, a notebook of random lyrics, and the conviction that Jimmy can teach her to be a songwriter. Jimmy knows the biz, but believes that “dumb-ass” rock-and-roll is dead. Margie is naive, but she knows that it's sheet music that's dead; the business is now about selling records to teenagers. They need each other.
This script could easily work as just another whimsical odd-couple play. That would have been okay. But thanks to the integrity of David Wolber’s direction, Wells’ brilliant dialog, wonderful music by Frank Allison (from Frank Allison and the Odd Sox), and inspired performances by Powers and Leahy, “Brill” transcends all that. It takes us to a sacred place, where music is conceived in love and heartache and pain and joy and despair and hope. Always hope.
The third character in this play is the building itself. The scenic design by Daniel C. Walker instantly feels right, but the building lives and breathes through sound design by Will Myers and the additional music created and arranged by Musical Director R. MacKenzie Lewis.
Emerging playwright David Wells was selected to showcase “Brill” at Performance Network Theatre’s Fireside Festival of New Works last year as a staged reading starring Powers and Leahy. The script was so well received by the audience that Performance Network Theatre added the piece to the 2012-2013 mainstage season.
This play deserves to find an audience in Manhattan; we hope someday it will. For now, make a point of seeing it in Ann Arbor. “Brill” runs through February 10, 2013, with shows on Thursdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 3 p.m. and 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m. Ticket prices range from $25 to $41 and can be purchased online or by calling 734-663-0681. All performances take place at the Performance Network Theatre on 120 East Huron Street in Ann Arbor.