“A New Brain” may be William Finn’s most personal work. Inspired by the out Jewish Boston writer-composer’s own diagnosis of an arteriovenous malformation, this Lincoln Center off-Broadway musical (1998)—with incisive book by Finn and frequent collaborator James Lapine (“Falsettos”) focuses on the inner life—emotional and creative—of a fictional gay Jewish songwriter with similar concerns about the challenges such a diagnosis poses to his creativity as well as his life. Moonbox Productions, an enterprising young local company, is doing its own exploring as director-set designer Allison Olivia Choat takes a very fresh approach to hero Gordon Schwinn’s medical and creative odysseys at the Boston Center for the Arts.
Choat takes her cues from Finn and the musical’s alternately humorous and touching score. In the playbill director’s notes, she points to the deepening intimacy of the show as it moves from the world outside children’s television show composer Schwinn to the world within him. Finn brings vivid immediacy to Gordon’s alternating hope and despair. Choat makes his rich inner life come alive as well with the help of her sharp design team. Jeffrey E. Salzberg’s lighting underscores the moments of light and darkness within Gordon. Fabian Aguilar’s combination of light-hearted frog costumes and elegant evening wear for a tango ensemble follow suit in concert with Rachel Bertone’s exuberant choreography.
Especially winning is Choat’s versatile use of the white piano construct in her handsome set-complete with a wide musical-themed wall unit for Gordon’s many books. With the inventiveness of Jonathan Winters turning simple props into a variety of objects on his classic television comedy show, she has Schwinn’s piano by turns become a boat for Gordon and his sailing enthusiast lover Roger, a medical bed and even a hospital MRI machine. The evolving identity of the piano parallels the changes in Gordon’s emotional and medical states.
A high energy ensemble cast follows director Choat’s lead . Tom Shoemaker sings out Gordon’s uncertainties about composing and life sweetly and movingly.though he could project more strongly at times. Ross E. Brown has all of Roger’s anchor-tough love and support for Gordon.-especially in the thoughtful Gordon-Roger duet “Sailing.” Shana Dirik is properly attentive as Mimi, Gordon’s well-intentioned if sometimes overbearing Jewish mother. Her delivery of Mimi’s beautiful solo “The Music Still Plays On” is lush and loving.
Aaron Michael Ray, appealing as a quip-rich but very kind nurse Richard, is a company find. Matthew Zahnzinger is convincingly domineering as frog-playing Mr. Bungee, who depends on Gordon’s zippy kids songs. Another distinctive touch of the Moonbox revival involves Lori L’Italien as panhandling Homeless Lady—an unusual Greek chorus-like character—collecting change for Massachusetts Farm to School Project (MFSP) , an actual local non-profit organization, at each performance. MFSP seeks to increase access to healthy locally grown food in schools and other institutions benefiting children.
Moonbox Productions brings fresh access to Finn’s insights about life, love, musical art and and mortality. The only thing that needs fine tuning in an otherwise vibrantly original revival of “a New Brain” is the volume of the musical accompaniment, which often threatens to drown out some of Finn’s richest lyrics. Talented music director Dan Rodriguez can easily lower the volume of an over-energetic horn so that Moonbox’s radiant revival is as mind-blowingly joyous as it should be.
A New Brain, Moonbox Productions,Plaza Theatre, Boston Center for the Arts, through April 6.617-933-8600 or bostontheatrescene.com