Saturday, March 23, 2013

"I Feel So Much Spring!" - Moonbox Productions' "A New Brain" at the Plaza Theatre

In the past few weeks, I have seen and reviewed a lot of theatrical productions in and around Boston and Cambridge.  Those who do not know me well may imagine that I could be close to overdosing on live theater or becoming jaded when a particular production or individual performance falls short of perfection.  On the contrary, I am becoming more and more impressed by the depth and breadth of live performance options that the theater-going public in Greater Boston has available to us.  The choices are myriad.  
They range all the way from . . . 
  • A steady stream of Tony Award winning artists coming to town in national tours of Broadway shows playing in the grande dame houses in the Theater District. . .
  • To the A.R.T., that seems to be spawning Broadway-bound hits more often that salmon swim upstream to deposit their fertilized eggs . . .
  • To the Equity houses like the Huntington, the Lyric Stage, Stoneham, New Repertory,  Actors' Shakespeare, Commonwealth Shakespeare, Central Square Theater, et al. . . .
  • To the smaller theater companies - professional, fringe, semi-professional troupes laboring in small black box spaces or full proscenium stages . . .
  • to the Main Stage and student productions at our amazing assortment of universities, colleges, conservatories and institutes that are training the next generation of creative talent. 
Everywhere I turn, I see a wonderful admixture and co-mingling of veteran talent with budding new actors, theater craftsmen and women, creative technicians, writers, dramaturgs, directors, producers and stage managers.  The future is bright and the present situation is an embarrassment of riches for those of us who have acquired the life-long and insatiable hunger to experience story telling at its finest through live drama and musical theater.

In this rich firmament, Moonbox Productions shines brightly.  It's current production of "A New Brain" can be seen at the BCA's Plaza Theatre.  The show was written by Natick native William Finn as he convalesced from a life-threatening neurological condition.  He collaborated with James Lapine on the book.  The show ultimately evolves into a life-affirming climax, but there are bumps along the road, or should I say, some rough seas during the voyage.

Director Allison Olivia Choat has assembled a marvelous ensemble cast  who work well together, with some truly memorable moments in which individual voices and performances shine through.  The story is written as a blend of realistic and real time action interspersed with some surreal moments when  Gordon Schwinn's medical condition causes him to dream or to become befogged (and "befrogged") in delusions.  Hopping in and out of both types of sequences is children's TV character, Mr. Bungee, a solitary amphibious green Greek chorus, commenting relentlessly on Schwinn's failure to achieve success as a song writer. 

Finn's work includes the trilogy of plays that were compressed and presented as Falsettos.  Finn had a Broadway hit in "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee."   His works is often described as strongly autobiographical.  This may be the problem with the writing of "A New Brian."  He wrote many of the lyrics and much of the music in the months after undergoing brain surgery.  While there are some truly magical moments and moving songs, the writing is uneven, with some sequences and lyrics that are simply painful and insipid.  Perhaps one of the reasons that this show has never made the leap to Broadway is that the play's book and lyrics need a good "show doctor."  

Finn's protagonist, Schwinn, writes songs for a children TV show.  He hates the work, and is using it to pay the bills so he can write something truly meaningful and memorable.  His life partner, Roger, who loves sailing, is delayed in rushing to Schwinn's hospital bedside because he has been "becalmed in the lee, in the lee, in the lee . . . of Cuttyhunk."  Schwinn's composing career seems equally becalmed in the lee of Mr. Bungee.  Finn has written songs and scenes that parody the simplistic and often inane nature of songs composed for children's TV, including "The Yes Song."  The problem seems to be that in his early stage of recuperation, Finn was not able to clearly discern the line between  parody of the children's show within the play and the need to write more complex and compelling lyrics and three-dimensional characters for the play outside of the Mr. Bungee TV show.  As a prime example, the character of the mother, Mimi Schwinn, is written as a caricature of a controlling, interfering Jewish mother.  Much to her credit, Shana Dirik adds her own special sauce to what could have been a thankless role, and makes Mimi an almost sympathetic character.

Tom Shoemaker is perfectly cast as Schwinn.  The show is written as a through-composed piece (think of RENT  or Les Miserables) with little dialogue.  So the singing voices are key in the creation of believable characters.  Shoemaker's voice flows between subtle and vulnerable to a few special moments when he shows off his rock star chops with some full-throated fortissimo phrases.  Equally impressive in his vocal virtuosity is Ross E. Brown as Roger.  His opening number, as he arrives from his sailing junket off of The Cape, has moments that are breathtaking in their beauty.  Another voice that stands out from an impressive crowd is that of Lori L'Italien as Homeless Lady.  The ensembles singing, especially in the production numbers "Heart and Music" and "I Feel So Much Spring" are electric.  The blend of voices and the balance of voices with orchestra is spine-tingling.

Music Director, Dan Rodriguez, has assembled a wonderful group of musicians.  The problem is that except for the numbers in which the band complements the ensemble singing, they are so loud that they often overwhelm individual voices.  I was sitting in the third row, and had to strain to hear some of the more subtle and potentially-moving musical moments, especially when Mr. Shoemaker was appropriately using his "inside voice."  The creative team have made the appropriate choice to have the actors sing without microphones, which should work fine in such an intimate performance space.  The band somehow needs a little "less Spring" in their step to allow the individual voices to blossom!

The cast is rounded out with fine work by David Carney as Dr. Berensteiner, Shonna Cirone as Rhoda, Peter Miller as the Minister (he has a fun Gospel shtick in one number), Aaron Michael Ray as Nurse Richard, Allison Russell as Waitress and Nancy D., and Matthew Zahnzinger as Mr. Bungee, a wonderful blend of Barney and The Misanthrope!

Despite the few quibbles I have shared regarding the writing and some of the technical challenges, the whole is much greater than the sum of its parts.  The play - and this particular production of the play - is, at the end, a life-affirming anthem to not giving up on dreams or relationships.  At one point in the evening's activities, audience members were clapping along with the cast.  It is live theater with all of its glories and challenges.  This show is worth seeing and feeling and experiencing.  I left the theater humming "I Feel So Much Spring"!

The show runs through April 6 at the Plaza Theatre at the Boston Center for the Arts (BCA)



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