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Chicago by John Olson

In Trousers and Falsettos
Finn Festival, Porchlight Music Theatre

In Trousers
(front) Joe Schenck
(l - r) Coryell Barlow, Bethany Thomas, and Erin Myover

It took William Finn some 22 years to get from the 1979 premiere of his In Trousers to Infinite Joy, the retrospective of his work released on CD in May 2001. It has taken another four to get to the nation’s first “Finn Festival,” which opened on Sunday, March 27 under the auspices of Chicago’s Porchlight Music Theatre. Though this recognition of the composer’s body of work is overdue, coming just before the Broadway opening of the show that may become his most popular work yet (The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee), the timing of this honor couldn’t be more perfect to attract visitors to Porchlight, whose first two productions in the festival are highly worthy of the responsibility to the writer such a series carries.

Porchlight has its own debt to repay Mr. Finn. Their 1999 production of Falsettos ran for six months and helped put them on the Chicago theater map. They had success with a Finn show again in 2002, when their A New Brain played to sellout audiences.

To open the Finn Festival, Porchlight is performing Finn’s “Marvin Musicals,” Falsettos and In Trousers, in repertory through April 16th and 17th respectively (A New Brain and Elegies will follow in late April and May). On March 26 and 27th, audiences were given the opportunity for a “Marvin Marathon,” with the two musicals performed in succession by different casts and directors, and a dinner break in between. Spending three and one-half hours with Marvin’s confused sexuality and his struggles to learn the meaning of manhood from adolescence through ten years of marriage, may be enough to either save viewers years of therapy or send them into it, depending on one’s starting point.

Though I’d seen March of the Falsettos, the 1981 one-act musical that was joined with 1989’s Falsettoland to form the two act Falsettos, three times before this performance, this was my first exposure to In Trousers, which initially introduced audiences to Finn’s alter ego. It’s a stream of consciousness song cycle in which Marvin awakens in bed one morning to assess his unusual and not-entirely-complete journey from adolescence to manhood. Director Matthew Gunnels has rearranged material from various versions of the show to create a new one for this production. It’s a wickedly funny, highly irreverent piece in its exploration of emerging sexuality. It shows us Marvin’s lust for his ample junior high school history teacher Miss Goldberg (Bethany Thomas), who always wears sunglasses and was originally played off-Broadway by Mary Testa, as well his first high school girlfriend (Coryell Barlow) and his wife (Erin Myover). It has the uninhibited, Saturday Night Live-like tone of late 1970s humor in which any topic and behavior is fair game. Marvin attempting to seduce Miss Goldberg after class? Singing about oral sex with his new male lover Whizzer to his wife of 10 years? You bet.

Gunnels makes a most impressive debut as a Porchlight director with this show (he’s performed in other shows of the company and served as an artistic associate as well). He keeps his cast of four in perpetual motion at a breakneck pace, and helps them land the outrageous humor. Joe Schenck, just a few years out of the musical theater program at Northwestern University, is an amazing Marvin. He succeeds in introducing us to the child/man that will become the protagonist of Falsettos by playing him with equal skill as boy, man and man/boy. Like his cast mates, he can belt out these rapid-fire songs like there’s no tomorrow and still have energy for cartwheels in the show’s acrobatic choreography by Brigitte Ditmars. It’s a funny, biting piece that helpfully provides some back-story for the self-absorbed, confused Marvin of Falsettos.

Falsettos
(seated, back row) Christa Buck, Charissa Armon and Nate Johnson; (seated, front row) Holly Stauder, Aaron Graham; (forefront) Mitchell Hollis and Jon Runnfeldt
After a break of an hour and 40 minutes, we returned to see an incredibly touching and effective production of Falsettos, with the first act surpassing the impact in my memory of both the original Off-Broadway production of March of the Falsettos and another early ‘80s production. That one was also presented at Chicago’s Theatre Building and starred John Herrera as Marvin and had Finn in attendance at the performance I saw.

The experience of viewing Falsettos in close succession to In Trousers highlights the contributions of James Lapine as Finn’s co-librettist of Falsettos’ two parts. Where In Trousers, written by Finn alone, is a clever, biting review of songs concerning male sexuality and emotional development (or lack thereof), March of the Falsettos gives us a linear though spare plot, and characters realized sufficiently that we and Finn would want to revisit them in Falsettoland eight years later (though only two years later in the story). In Falsettos, the pace slows enough to let us take in more of the lyrics and get to know the characters a bit. Though the production is blessed with fine voices all around and a supportive “teeny tiny band” of three directed by Eugene Dizon, Stage Director Steve Scott (an artistic associate at the Goodman Theatre) treats the piece as a domestic drama and gets us to care immensely about its non-traditional family.

Scott and his cast have done some subtle but effective rethinkings of the characters. Holly Stauder’s Trina is still (understandably) distressed, but less neurotic and more sympathetic than she is sometimes played. Aaron Graham’s psychiatrist Mendel is way out of goofy Chip Zien territory - a tougher, more self-absorbed guy, especially in act one. This production’s Whizzer is a stereotypically clubby gay guy of the period as played by Jon Runnfeldt. This interpretation, reinforced by costume designer Carol Blanchard’s wardrobe of tight jeans and a tank top, may make Whizzer a little less likely mate for the preppy, recently-out Marvin, but Runnfeldt firmly commits to the approach and gives a highly nuanced performance that involves us with Whizzer and forces us to believe Marvin does as well.

One of the challenges in making Falsettos work is finding a child performer who can handle the part of Marvin’s son, Jason. Scott has a good one in Mitch Hollis, who sings the boy soprano parts like a pro and lands all the funny stuff with ease. Though he’s a bit stiff and could project more spontaneity, it’s evident he’s been well directed by Scott and has taken that direction well. Charissa Armon and Christa Buck Van Ermen are likable as the lipstick “Lesbians next door” of act two.

Have I left anyone out? Oh, yeah ... Marvin. Well, if there’s one sour note in this production, it’s unfortunately at the center. It’s not a literal note. Nate Johnson provides probably the best-sung Marvin I’ve ever heard. Dramatically, though, he doesn’t commit to any particular take on his character and gives us a very bland and neutral Marvin. We miss his passion, his self-centeredness – any of the complexities that make Marvin so intriguing. With the help of his strong cast mates, Johnson still manages to win us over in the quiet moments, though, and I easily choked up at the end of each act.

After 23 years, I find March of the Falsettos to be an amazingly powerful piece, maybe even more than it when it premiered. Today, we needn’t spend energy admiring its (most admirable) pioneering depiction of gay men as everyday likable guys who carry much of the same baggage as their straight brothers, but can focus on its theme of the difficulty of maintaining loving relationships and learning what it means to be an adult man. It’s bitingly funny, honest and uncompromising. It could still stand on its own, as it did for the eight years before Finn wrote Falsettoland.

Falsettoland by itself is a slighter piece. Still, just as Finn couldn’t abandon the characters as he left them in at the end of March of the Falsettos, we have to see them again and know that Marvin’s extended family has turned out all right. The softer, more touching Falsettoland is a satisfying sequel, reminding us of the fragility of loving relationships and of life itself. Finn is to be given much credit for being among the first writers of the late 20th century to celebrate the concept of the non-traditional family – first as a goal or ideal of Marvin in March of the Falsettos and then as a reality for the characters in Falsettoland.

This first half of Porchlight’s Finn Festival is cause for celebration of the growth of the artists involved as well. The double bill of In Trousers and Falsettos shows Finn’s development from a songwriter of satiric material to a wise and humanistic mensch, a side we’ll see more of in A New Brain and Elegies. On a more local level, it’s a showcase of the developing talents of a relatively new director, Matthew Gunnels, and young performers like Joe Schenk, Jon Runnfeldt, Holly Stauder and Aaron Graham, who we’ve been able to track for several years now in the Chicago scene. It’s almost a cliché of any review of Porchlight Music Theatre to note their continual improvement and progress, but the maturity of these productions suggests that they may not be too many years away from the sort of national attention and recognition given to companies like Eric Schaeffer’s Signature Theater in Arlington, Virginia. When Mr. Finn arrives in Chicago to see these productions in mid-April, I think he is going to be very impressed.

Falsettos and In Trousers will run in repertory through April 16th and 17th respectively at the Theatre Building, 1225 West Belmont Avenue, Chicago. Performances are Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m., Sundays at 7 p.m. and matinees on Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m. For specific performance schedule and ticket information, visit www.porchlighttheatre.com. Single tickets are $27-$30 and can be purchased at the Theatre Building Chicago Box Office or by calling 773-327-5252; or through Ticketmaster (www.ticketmaster.com or 312-902-1500).

Photos: Michael Brosilow

See the schedule of theatre productions in the Chicago area


-- John Olson



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