While there's nothing wrong with escaping the stress of everyday life by enjoying a fanciful theatrical piece, a musical such as Falsettos, which delves into gritty topics and three-dimensional, real-life characters, can provide the emotional release and thought-provoking catalyst that few other things in life can. The University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music (CCM) recently presented this unique and intriguing show as part of their Studio Series. With intelligent direction, solid design, and a talented cast, CCM's production of showed why it is considered a favorite of many die-hard musical enthusiasts.
Falsettos is actually the combination of two one-act Off-Broadway musicals, March of the Falsettos, which debuted in 1981, and Falsettoland, first produced in 1990. The combined piece won Tony Awards in 1992 for Best Score and Best Book. Falsettos takes place between 1979 and 1981 and follows Marvin, who has left his wife Trina and son Jason for a male lover, Whizzer. Trina then falls for Marvin's psychiatrist, Mendel. Marvin's lesbian neighbors, Cordelia and Dr. Charlotte, join in the action in act two. Whizzer and Marvin break up and then are reunited, only to find that Whizzer is dying of some new unexplained disease. It sounds simple enough, but the characters are complicated and genuine, and exploring their reactions to the obstacles thrown their way makes for compelling theatergoing.
The book for the musical is by William Finn and James Lapine, and it boasts well-constructed scenes conveying both humorous and emotional moments in the relationships of these interesting characters. Despite dealing with the outbreak of the AIDS epidemic, Falsettos is primarily about experiencing life and love. Finn's score is sung through and bears his unique style, with music ranging from beautiful ballads to quick-paced manic group numbers. His tunes often go in unexpected directions, and are both melodically accessible and distinctive from most musical scores. His lyrics are smart, concise, quirky, and organic, and Falsettos is considered his masterpiece. Song highlights include the jaunty "Love Is Blind"; "Thrill of First Love," which introduces the audience to Marvin and Whizzer's tension-filled relationship; the tender "Father To Son"; and two of the most beautiful showtunes of the last thirty years, "Unlikely Lovers" and "What Would I Do?."
The performers in Falsettos at CCM are uniformly strong in every respect. As Marvin, Graydon Long moves adeptly from unsympathetic jerk to maturing and grateful father/lover/friend. Joe Chisholm displays charm and a commanding stage presence as Whizzer, and is especially moving during his act two song "You Gotta Die Sometime." As Trina and Mendel, Mia Gentile and Max Chernin each provide well-executed comic relief by conveying the neurotic personalities of the roles, but add enough tenderness and empathy to ground the characters in reality. Ms. Gentile knocks Trina's showstopping number "I'm Breaking Down" out of the park, and received an extended ovation following the song. As Jason, young Mitchell Polonsky (a CCM Preparatory student) has a few hiccups with Finn's intricate melodies, but displays extremely strong acting chops for a performer of his age. Julia Johanos (Dr. Charlotte) and Natasha Ashworth (Cordelia) have less stage time than the rest of the cast, but likewise make strong impressions. The CCM students all possess first rate singing voices that are put to great use, and portray characters that are older than their actual early twenties convincingly.
Directors Dee Anne Bryll and Ed Cohen provide nicely detailed interactions for this character-driven show. They skillfully interpret the material with new, yet effective approaches to the staging of several songs including "Marvin Goes Crazy"/"I Never Wanted To Love You" and "What Would I Do?." The tempos on some of the songs are a bit slower than usual for Falsettos, which allows for more focus on Finn's quick-paced lyrics. Stephen Goers ably leads a talented teeny tiny band.
The smartly designed two-level unit set by Thomas C. Umfrid features five doors, six chairs, two staircases and art inspired by Keith Haring's famous heart pieces. The lighting by Michael L. Cecchini includes effective layering of colors and is professionally rendered. Carolyn Channing Hayward's costumes are solidly planted in the 1979/1981 setting for the show. The wigs by Hailei Call are a bit hit and miss.
Falsettos is an underrated musical gem that is a great choice for a program such as CCM, as the show stretches its performers both musically and in the acting requirements. It's a powerful piece for both its ability to capture an important moment in history and in its depiction of very real and human characters faced with significant adversity. CCM provides an extremely worthwhile production, including seven talented and committed performers. Falsettos was presented from February 4-6, 2010.