Show Review: Jonatha Brooke's "My Mother Has 4 Noses"

by David Goldberg
Posted Feb 26, 2014 at 11:42pm

I’ve followed the musical career of Jonatha Brooke for a dozen or so years, but knew very little about her thespian side.

I had read bits and pieces about her family life, and a trickling about the musical play that she wrote and in which she now stars at the Duke Theater in New York City.

The title, “My Mother Has 4 Noses” was, I presumed, a comedic homage to her mother, whom I had read about some years prior, who had some affiliation to the clown community.

It made sense to me. After all, a clown’s got its human nose, and then at least one big red nose, and who knows how many more?

As it turns out, the title is not a metaphor. Her mother did indeed, have four prosthetic noses.

So there I was in row F, close to the stage, actually, at The Duke, the ideal venue for this intimate-style show, since every seat provides the physical ability to connect with the performer.

The sparse quaint set was dressed with a table, chair, bookcase replete with books and trinkets, a digital piano, and not one, but two Olson acoustics. Ben Butler (guitar/musical director) and Anja Wood (cello) are positioned towards the rear of the stage, subtly out of the limelight, providing seamless support.

Then, out came Jonatha Brooke. The journey begins with Brooke acquainting us with her mother’s four noses, using projected images to aid our visual perception. She continues to use projections along the way to draw us closer to her mother’s world of reality, as well as surrealism.

And then, just as the clicking ceases when a roller coaster inches over the summit about to plummet towards the ground, the audience gets catapulted into two 45-minute rides, separated by a brief intermission, twisting and turning through the mind of Jonatha Brooke.

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Brooke recounts the stories of her childhood—what it was like to grow up in a Christian Scientist home and how that played a role in casting her malleable character, for example, when she broke her wrist, she was told, “God would heal it.”

Her affectionate, yet sometimes satirical portrayal of her mother probes deeply into the world of healing, cancer, and dementia, demonstrated throughout with wit, charm, and intellectually penned pieces of music. One scene is even titled “Poop,” and offers a detailed, albeit humorous account about dealing with her mother’s biological needs. Not an everyday topic, one would agree.

Brooke’s multi-dimensional voice can be angelic, aggressive, passive, and outraged—but always appropriately tuned to the melody. Well into the play, there’s a line “How far you’d go for love.” As Brooke explained, “That's a story I tell when Mom is sort of at this very clear turning point, and she's starting to talk about dying.

“I think that anyone who’s been through this knows that it becomes part of the daily dialogue of someone who’s down this path…but it was also the point where I was realizing how much I loved her, and how grateful I was for the opportunity to care for her. So I wrote this song called ‘How Far You'd Go For Love.’ In the play, the song is split in half by this dialogue about how scary it was, and yet how beautiful the caregiving was.”

“How far you’d go for love…" the chorus sings… “You never know how far you'd go for love, until you go far beyond what you have ever known of love, for love.” It’s a sentiment Brooke explores throughout the performance, and perhaps in her adulthood, caring for her mother as she aged. Brooke was inspired to write the play while her mother was still alive, with her mother’s blessing. She also received encouragement from her fans and husband/manager, Patrick Rains.

Here's an excerpt of the show, "Are You Getting This Down?"

Born in Chicago and raised in Boston, Jonatha Brooke is the daughter of the late Robert Nelson, a writer for The Christian Science Monitor, and Nancy Lee Stone. Stone, who attended Principia College and Northwestern University, was a poet and professor. As Brooke said, “The column she wrote [for The Christian Science Monitor] for 10 years was penned under Darren Stone Nelson. In later years, as her focus was more on her poetry, it became simply Darren Stone. But Mom preferred to be recognized affectionately by her nickname, “Stoney.”

According to Brooke, both parents were her primary source of encouragement throughout her life. When asked how much her mother’s love of poetry played a role in her ability to write music and lyrics, she replied, “Mom was my most beautiful fan, as was Dad. Mom loved language, words, and of course, poetry.”

Brooke’s music has appeared on several films, including Disney’s “Return to Neverland,” “Tinker Bell,” and TV shows such as Joss Whedon’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and the short-lived “Dollhouse,” as well as “Ally McBeal,” and “The Hills.”

Her musical influences—Rickie Lee Jones, Suzanne Vega, The Beatles, Stevie Wonder, The Who and Joni Mitchell, and the musicals “West Side Story,” “Godspell” and “The Sound of Music” (“I know that show by heart”, she said) are abundant throughout her catalogue. She has recorded with Joe Sample, Christian McBride, Steve Gadd, Greg Leisz, Davy Knowles, Chris Botti, and others, and has released several wonderful solo albums, including 2008’s amazing The Works.

Today, Brooke’s religion is “Love.” Brooke appears to be at peace with the relationship she had with her mother, and the selfless tribute and dedication shown to her is evidenced by “My Mother Has 4 Noses.” Audience members who have cared for an ailing loved one will appreciate the honesty Brooke weaves in, recalling loved ones of their own.

The production runs through May 4 at The Duke on 42nd Street, 229 West 42nd Street, Manhattan; 646-223-3010, dukeon42.org. Jonatha’s website is jonathabrooke.com. Her new album, which bears the same name, can be found on iTunes, Amazon, and jonathabrooke.com or 4noses.org.