“A New Brain”, now being presented by Moonbox Productions, is a (very) autobiographical work from Natick native William Finn (“March of the Falsettos”, “Falsettoland”, “25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee”) who wrote the music and lyrics and co-wrote the book with long-time collaborator James Lapine. Based on Finn’s own diagnosis of an arteriovenous malformation, it’s an unusual idea for a musical, first presented as a less structured song cycle, with almost three dozen songs. Revised in a more narrative if non-linear form, it had its Off-Broadway opening in 1998, ran for five months, and was nominated for Drama Desk awards for music, lyrics and book. Intermission-less, at just shy of two hours, it’s a virtually through sung (dare one say thus operatic?) workout requiring a multi-talented cast and a fluid production. Moonbox (the name refers to a theatrical device that simulates moonlight) has provided just that in this effort, the latest in an unbroken string of critically acclaimed hits under Producer and Artistic Director Sharman Altshuler, who has assembled a cast and crew equal to the material, which is saying a great deal.
“A New Brain” concerns the crisis faced by a young Broadway composer, Gordon (Tom Shoemaker), who worries that either he won’t live to complete his most important work, or will be left incapable of doing so. He is suddenly taken ill and rushed to the hospital where, anticipating brain surgery, he begins to envision songs, hallucinating that they are being performed around him. With a fabulous cast of ten, (or eleven, if you insist, including the multitasking, deconstructing piano that plays more roles than anyone else on stage), the central story develops as “Gordo” confronts relationships with a parent, his partner, and his publicist. These would be his mother Mimi (Shana Dirik), his boyfriend Roger (Ross E. Brown), and his agent Rhoda (Shonna Cirone). And then there’s the frog-costumed Mr. Bungee (Matthew Zahnzinger), for whose children’s television program Gordo writes songs, even as his chords cause some discord. Along the way he encounters Lisa the Homeless Lady (Lori L’Italien), a fumbling minister (Peter Mill), a sassy waitress and tough nurse (both played by Allison Russell), a nice nurse (Aaron Michael Ray) and Gordo’s surgeon, Dr. Berensteiner (David Carney). Everyone of them gets her or his chance to shine in the spotlight, and it would be criminal to try to pick and choose among a group of such incredibly beautiful voices.
There are some particularly poignant moments. One of the first songs is about the “Heart and Music” needed to make a song, as sung by the ensemble, which sets the tone for the show. Then there’s a lovely number featuring Brown and Shoemaker, “Sailing”, which later becomes a metaphor (in the equally moving “Sitting Becalmed in the Lee of Cuttyhunk”) for how our protagonist must face his surgery. And the anthem sung by L’Italien about wanting “Change” (speaking of metaphors), or Brown‘s “A Really Lousy Day in the Universe”, or Dirik’s maternal lament even as “The Music Still Plays On”. Finn has provided a wonderfully varied score, with magnificently nuanced lyrics. He ends with a slight variation on that earlier number, “Heart and Music”, now altered to “Time and Music”, needed in the making of a song. Ah, the wages of synapses: witty lyrics and a heavenly score.
Allison Olivia Choat, Director and Set Designer, has created a truly unforgettable treat, above and beyond the brilliance of her conception of that scene-stealing piano. She’s ably aided by Costume Designer Fabian Aguilar, Lighting Designer Jeffrey E. Salzberg, Sound Designer Dan Costello, and Music Director Dan Rodriguez, who heads up a seven piece combo in great form (though they occasionally overwhelm some lyrics, a risk in such a limited performing space). Special note should be made of the amazing choreography by Rachel Bertone, which proves this cast has more than just singing and acting chops.
In a musical about music, creativity and artistic survival, this company shines, in daylight and moonlight. Finn himself has stated that the theme is to stop and “smell the flowers”. Thus the infant terrible who gave us the “Falsettos” musicals isn’t so terrible any more, as witnessed by this work. It’s a kinder, gentler, but no less edgy writer and composer. As our protagonist Gordo says in quoting his father, “Sometimes joy comes at a terrible cost”. What Finn endured and survived has produced a work where the music definitely still plays on. As the final song by Shoemaker and the entire cast in this sweet, enjoyable creation so aptly put it, surely every audience member left the theater singing “I Feel So Much Spring”. It’s not often theatergoers get to experience the magic of a gem this well polished. It’s as near to theatrical perfection as it gets. Even Mr. Bungee would be pleased.