Allison Olivia Choat has directed shows set in a Kentucky cavern and Depression-era California. Now she’s taking audiences someplace deeper and stranger: into the mind of a musical theater composer.
Natick native and Tony Award winner William Finn (“Falsettos,” “25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee”) began writing “A New Brain” back in the 1990s after a bout with an arteriovenous malformation that required surgery. The show, which debuted off-Broadway in 1998, ducks in and out of reality as it follows children’s TV show composer Gordon Schwinn through a life-threatening medical emergency that forces him to confront his relationships with his mother, his boyfriend Roger, and his career.
Now Choat directs Moonbox Productions’ staging of the musical, which has music and lyrics by Finn and a book by Finn and James Lapine. Performances begin Friday at the Boston Center for the Arts.
“One of the metaphors I’ve been using a lot to talk to [the cast] is a reality amp where 1 is normal and 11 is absolutely surreal,” says Choat, whose previous Moonbox credits include “Floyd Collins” and “Of Mice and Men.” “Some of the scenes are a 1, where they’re sitting in a cafe eating lunch, and there are some that are at 11, where Gordon is [in a coma] and dancing the tango with Roger in a restaurant of his mind.”
A NEW BRAIN
Playing Gordon has been both an emotional and a technical challenge for Tom Shoemaker, a 26-year-old Bennington College grad for whom a role as a farmhand in Moonbox’s “Of Mice and Men” last December was a professional step up after a couple of years in community theater.
Gordon, he says, is “a part that I think a lot of struggling artists or performers can really relate to, because . . . a good number of the songs are reflections of the insecurities and fears that come up in any kind of creative profession: ‘I’m not good enough, why am I even trying, I’ll never get this written’ — that sort of thing.”
A sometime composer himself, Shoemaker says it’s been easy to dredge up those feelings for the role but not always easy to deal with them.
“There are a couple moments in the show, actually, where I sometimes have to stop and get it together,” Shoemaker says. “Especially the time when Gordon tells Roger that he has to go away because Gordon needs to write instead of spending the night with him. We did that the other day [in rehearsal] and it really took me off-guard how powerful something like that can be.”
Choat started out singing opera before moving into directing opera and theater. She says Shoemaker’s deep connection to Gordon’s emotions actually helps him deliver a more restrained performance.
“He does it very naturally and without a lot of histrionics. It would be easy to play Gordon as someone who is freaking out all the time, which doesn’t serve the show,” she says, and chuckles. “It would be superficially funny, but I think, frankly, this is Boston and we’re in the arts community, so we all know plenty of neurotic people. We don’t want to go see them onstage.”
Shoemaker studied vocal performance, but his last couple of roles have been in straight plays. He’s been working hard to get his vocal chops ready for the show, which is 90 minutes, sung-through. He credits Moonbox music director Dan Rodriguez with providing crucial support: “Anytime there’s a problem, he knows what my question means, even if I don’t, and he fixes the problem instantly.”
In a somewhat unusual move, Choat also serves as set designer for “A New Brain,” a position she sometimes held on productions earlier in her career. She was inspired by a dream that made the connection between the raised lid of Gordon’s grand piano and a boat’s sail. It made narrative sense: Roger sails. Choat ended up with such specific ideas about the set that she decided it wouldn’t be fair to hire someone else just to execute her vision.
“I started thinking to myself, is there a way to tell this story using the piano as our only set?” she says. “It ended up, the answer is no. We also needed a bookshelf. But it really forced me to think creatively in a way I hadn’t done in ages.”
The entire show is built around a piano that serves as musical instrument, sailboat, hospital bed, and more. “I thought, what happens when his world falls apart? What happens to our set?” Choat says. “I don’t want to spoil all of the surprises in our show, but some very dramatic and unexpected things happen to that piano.”
The production also features a seven-piece band that, while not precisely onstage, will be visible to the audience. Ross E. Brown plays Roger, and Shana Dirik plays Gordon’s mother, Mimi.
The stage manager for the show is Alexandra Jameson, Shoemaker’s girlfriend since 2011 and, he says happily, his fiancee as of a couple of weeks ago.
“This is a part I would not have thought and did not think I could sing through at the beginning of the whole process,” Shoemaker says. “My girlfriend was the one who talked me into auditioning, because she was convinced I could.”