BWW Review: A NEW BRAIN Has Heart and Music
A New Brain
Music and Lyrics by William Finn, Book by James Lapine and William Finn; Director/Set Designer, Allison Olivia Choat; Music Director, Dan Rodriguez; Producer, Sharman Altshuler, Stage Manager, Alexandra Jameson; Choreographer, Rachel Bertone; Lighting Designer, Jeffrey E. Salzberg; Sound Designer, Dan Costello; Costume Designer, Fabian Aguilar; Props Master, Douglas Altshuler
Performances through April 6 by Moonbox Productions at the Boston Center for the Arts, Plaza Theatre, 539 Tremont Street, Boston, MA; Box Office 617-933-8600 or www.bostontheatrescene.com or www.moonbox.org
A New Brain sounds like an alternate title for a play about Dr. Frankenstein's monster, but it actually is a musical about an event in the real life of composer William Finn that was far scarier than science fiction. Diagnosed with an arteriovenous malformation in his brain, Finn had no choice but to have a high risk operation that could destroy his creative abilities or cause his death. After a full recovery, he wrote songs about his experience which he eventually expanded into an Off-Broadway production with help from co-librettist James Lapine.
Moonbox Productions and Director Allison Olivia Choat have reverted to the familiar terrain of musical theater with this intimate, sung-through look into the heart and mind (er, brain) of the Tony Award-winning composer (Falsettos, The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee) who grew up in Natick, Massachusetts. The cast of ten is bursting with new talent alongside three actors who have been in previous Moonbox shows, all of whom have incredible vocal chops. Choat doubles as Set Designer and gets a lot of mileage out of an oversizEd White grand piano. It gets rolled around the stage and morphs into a hospital bed and an mri machine. The actual piano played by Music Director/Conductor Dan Rodriguez and seven other musicians are visible upstage behind a wall of open bookshelves.
Tom Shoemaker plays Finn's doppelganger Gordon Schwinn, an underachieving composer frustrated by his day job writing mindless songs for a children's television show starring Mr. Bungee (Matthew Zahnzinger), a nasty man in a giant frog suit. After Gordon collapses while lunching with his agent Rhoda (Shonna Cirone), he is whisked away to the hospital for a battery of tests while she rounds up his mother (Shana Dirik) and boyfriend Roger (Ross E. Brown). Gordon's chief worry is that he'll never get to write all of the wonderful songs that are pent up inside him. With the help of the Minister (Peter Mill), the doctor (Dave Carney), the nurses (Allison Russell, Aaron Michael Ray), Rhoda, Mom, and a Homeless Lady (Lori L'Italien), he sings about the kinds of stories waiting to be told in the lively "Heart and Music," one of the best songs in the score.
Throughout his ordeal, Gordon churns out a series of songs based on his life, his family history, and things he sees going on around him when he is in a coma. He has the opportunity to re-examine his experiences and his relationships, ultimately figuring out the things that are most important in his life. As a theme, it is derivative, but Finn's songs are eclectic and entertaining, and move the story along to keep our attention. More importantly, he and Lapine have created winning characters (even the ones like Bungee and the female nurse who are less likable) and they are well-played by the Moonbox cast.
It's hard to single out one performance because there's not a weak link in the ensemble, but Shoemaker carries the show on his slender shoulders. Like a good mother, Dirik offers strong support to her stage son, and Cirone convinces us that she's still got a crush on her old flame who happens to prefer boys. The Homeless Lady at first seems like a throwaway character, but serves as a one-woman Greek chorus and draws focus to the importance of change. L'Italien has fun with the role, getting in people's faces and making them feel uncomfortable. All three of these women have tremendous voices and know how to sell a song.
Although he could come on a little stronger, Brown shares sweet chemistry with Shoemaker and their voices blend together beautifully. Zahnzinger doesn't let his silly costume get in the way of showing the egomaniacal tendencies of Bungee, but he is equally believable when his softer side makes an appearance. Mill makes a strong showing as the clueless hospital chaplain, and smoothly joins with the other ensemble members in Rachel Bertone's choreography. Carney, Russell, and Ray are all triple threats who give their characters a lot of personality in every song and dance.
Choat's team of creative designers includes Jeffrey E. Salzberg (lighting), Dan Costello (Sound), and Fabian Aguilar (costume). Kudos for the frog outfit, Fabian! They all contribute to the effectiveness of this sweet and humorous little story that is told with a lot of heart. As Gordon says, "Heart and music make a song" and those Moonbox folks know how to sing it.