Thursday, March 28, 2013

A misstep from Moonbox

The cast of A New Brain.  Photo: Sharman Altshuler.

Moonbox Productions counted as my big "find" on the fringe last year; their Floyd Collins was a remarkable achievement for a fledgling troupe, and their revival of Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men was almost as strong.  But everyone hits a sophomore slump sooner or later, and I hope that's the only significance of their problematic production of A New Brain, William Finn's quirky, over-rated account of his own brain surgery (through April 6 at the BCA).

But let me say up front - many of the company's familiar strengths shine through this show; there are several talented newcomers in the cast, and Allison Olivia Choat, the auteur behind Moonbox, directs and designs with her usual remarkable flair (this time the whole show is organized around a white grand piano, which becomes a sailboat or hospital bed as required, and even undergoes surgery). Indeed, Choat's work at the interface of direction and design ranks among the most imaginative I've seen locally; it's actually better than Finn's script.

Which only makes me wonder whether she's choosing projects that are worthy of her talent.  Floyd Collins - okay, interesting; Of Mice and Men - sure, it's flawed but powerful; but Godspell, and now A New Brain?  I sense a kind of earnest victimology linking these choices, but not a whole lot more (and arguably Finn's song cycle - it's not quite a musical - is the weakest of the lot).

The basic trouble is that William Finn is more a lyricist than a composer - indeed, his signature achievement is fitting his tunes to the idiosyncratic rhythms of conversation (particularly self-conscious conversation).  But he's a monotonous melodist; it's telling that the children's songs in the score (the lead supposedly writes for a kiddie show) don't sound that different from the heart-felt ballads, and many of the show's numbers - there are something like thirty of them! - are relentlessly similar in their chord progressions.  As for the book, which is partially credited to James Lapine - well, it's odd how pre-fab it feels, given that it's supposedly a kind of confession.  Overbearing mother, pre-occupied boyfriend, obnoxious boss - there aren't many new ideas in this New Brain.

The Moonbox actors, to their credit, throw themselves into the show regardless, and for a while they can coast on the weirdness of doing a musical about brain surgery.  But they're hamstrung by the decision to put the instrumental ensemble backstage, with no screen, which means they have to shout over the orchestrations - with some lyrics inevitably being lost (and remember Finn is a basically a lyricist . . .).  What's more, director Choat and likable lead Tom Shoemaker haven't figured out a way to make Finn's rather bland factotum, "Gordon Schwinn," hold our interest for the whole show (the underdeveloped book is little help).

Still, there's witty choreography on tap from Rachel Bertone, and Fabian Aguilar's costumes are pretty fabulous (the amphibious outfit for "Mr. Bungee," the vicious kiddie star who impersonates a frog, is a particular hoot).  And the supporting cast is packed with talent, including local light Shana Dirik as Schwinn's complicated mom, the fearless Matthew Zahnzinger as the evil Mr. Bungee, and Allison Russell, Aaron Michael Ray, and particularly Lori L'Italien (whose belt reliably cuts through her accompaniment) in various roles.  I left wanting to like the show because I liked all these people.  But I'd like them all a whole lot more in a stronger script, and in a theatre where I can hear them.

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