Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Also see Arty's reviews of Mufaro's Beautiful Daughters, Actually, As You Like It and benevolence and Renee's review of Potted Potter: The Unauthorized Harry Potter Experience
Falsettos developed along an extraordinary path. It combines the second two of three one-act musicals by William Finn, collectively referred to as "the Marvin trilogy." Marvin, like Finn, is an urban, middle-class Jewish gay man. The first show, In Trousers, arrived in 1979, with Marvin not yet "out," married and living with his wife Trina and son Jason, then finally taking the plunge, moving on to be with his boyfriend, Whizzer. The second show, March of the Falsettos, premiered two years later in 1981, but is still set in 1979. Marvin struggles with what kind of life he and Whizzer can have together and with watching his ex-wife and son form new bonds with Mendel, who is, of all things, Marvin's psycho-therapist. Nine years later, in 1990, Falsettoland arrived. With full knowledge of all that occurred during the brutal 1980s, Finn set Falsettoland in 1981, just two years after we last saw Marvin and Whizzer. It is also the year reports begin circulating about a terrible, unexplained disease affecting gay men, as reported by a character in Falsettoland, Dr. Charlotte: "Something Bad Is Happening." This disaster is viewed in tandem with a life-cycle event that celebrates the ripening of youth and the promise of adulthood: Jason's bar mitzvah.
In 1992, March of the Falsettos and Falsettoland were fused into a two-act musical, act one set in 1979, act two set in 1981. Under the unified title Falsettos, the show won Tony Awards for both its musical score by William Finn and its book by Finn and playwright/director James Lapine. The latter award presumably is in recognition of the dramatic arc presented through the score, for there are no more than a handful of spoken words in this sung-through musical. In the second act, the characters Dr. Charlotte and her partner Cordelia, an aspiring Kosher caterer, provide humor to leaven some of the tough emotional going. Their addition to the act-one quintet of Marvin, Trina, Jason, Whizzer and Mendel helps connect the inward-looking characters with events going on in the world around them.
The national tour is polished to a bright sheen, fresh and working on all cylinders. James Lapine directed both the 1992 production and 2016 revival, and repeats those duties for the tour, working with material he clearly understands deeply. Transitions, not only from scene to scene, but emotion to emotion, from anger to longing to bliss to grief, glide seamlessly. Choreographer Spencer Liff has staged dance numbers that have more of a vaudevillian feel than a typical Broadway musical, apropos to the small cast and intimate themes, with an especially winning "Everyone Hates His Parents" shared by Jason and his former therapist, now step-dad, Mendel. The music is played with élan by a small but talented orchestra conducted by P. Jason Yarcho.
There are only seven actors on stage, but every one of them is outstanding. Most notable, Eden Espinosa is in powerful voice, beautifully modulated, as Trinawith lovely renditions of the moving "Trina's Song" and "Holding to the Ground," and a comedic tour-de-force on "I'm Breaking Down". She conveys the broad range of Trina's emotions as she copes with the unchartered waters of her life. Max von Essen as Marvin, around whom the story swirls, has a gorgeous, full baritone that pours out feeling, especially the beautiful ode to love, "What More Can I Say?," and heartfelt declarations to his son ("Father to Son") and his lover ("What Would I Do?"). Von Essen introduces us to Marvin's shallow understanding of the turmoil his search for his own identity has created for others, and then shows us how Marvin gains maturity and generosity of heart.
Nick Adams is well cast as Whizzer, projecting playful sexuality, which explains his appeal to Marvin, and a kind of decency that make his friendship with Jason feel authentic. He has two strong numbers, "The Games I Play" and "You Gotta Die Sometime," and knocks both out of the park. Adams and von Essen also sizzle together in "The Thrill of First Love." Nick Blaemire captures Mendel's practical, genial, empathetic, and slightly sly nature with a veneer of aloofness that thinly masks a need to be loved. He provides a great deal of the humor throughout the two acts, with sharp wit and timing. He delivered well musically, though appeared to have been laboring under a cold on opening night.
Thatcher Jacobs, one of the two young actors cast as Jason, is terrific. He easily holds his own with the adult cast members, singing with full, pleasing voice throughout, dancing with agility and expressing the immense range of emotions Jason experiences as his family falls apart, then reconstructs itself, only to fall apart again. When he is told to decide whether or not he wants to have his bar mitzvah in the face of loss, his anger is completely authentic; he just about broke my heart. Bryonha Marie Parham as Dr. Charlotte and Audrey Cardwell as Cordelia have parts that are less showy, but they bring added dimension to the scope of the narrative and lend their voices well, along with von Essen and Adams, to the poignant "Unlikely Lovers." Then there are ensemble pieces where the entire cast are finely attuned, bringing meaning to every work in the lyrics, especially in the glorious "The Baseball Game."
David Rockwell's set consists of a background silhouette of an urban skyline, with cutouts on which changing light patterns (Jeff Croiter, light designer) provide a host of environments and moods. As the show begins, a large white block is center stage, constructed of geometric pieces that fit snugly together like a three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle. These are pulled apart and rearranged in different ways to create chairs, tables, beds, sofas, and all the other trappings of urban dwellings. Only near the end, when the action is forced into a hospital room, is actual furniture brought in: time to end the play-acting and make things real. Jennifer Caprio's costumes capture the style sense of the late 1970s, early 1980s.
I have one quibble with this production. Falsettos is an intimate show, and played in modest New York theaters far smaller than the spacious Ordway787 (John Golden Theatre, 1992) and 948 (Walter Kerr Theatre, 2016) versus the Ordway's 1,900 seats. The wide playing area on stage is reduced to create a smaller box, which helps somewhat, but by rights, this show would run in a smaller house, like the Pantages or Cowles Center. Unfortunately, the economics of touring productions requires houses large enough to generate revues that cover the high cost of these enterprises. That said, I am grateful to the Ordway for bringing the excellent Falsettos tour to the Twin Cities.
In 1992, when Falsettos was delivered to Broadway, it addressed concerns of great urgency to the moment. Legal same-sex marriage was unthinkable, President Bill Clinton was formulating the "don't ask, don't tell" policy regarding LGBT individuals in the armed forces, and nothing was more menacing than the specter of AIDS. The latter, in particular, made Falsettos an especially bold venture on Broadway, where mainstream fare is the norm, but after running fifteen months and winning two Tony Awards, it had demonstrated what the public was ready for, with Angels in America and Kiss of the Spider Woman both winning Tony Awards the following year, and Rent coming just a few years later, breaking down most of the remaining barriers.
Twenty-seven years later, Falsettos remains a beautifully written musical with a lush score and well worth revising, Still, it is interesting to consider how it would take shape today. In 2019 we have many more households of children with two same-sex parents, same-sex marriage is the law of the land, gay and lesbians serve openly in the armed forces (though, we best not take anything for granted, as transgender service members know), and HIV-AIDs, while far from eradicated, is no longer a death sentence, with far greater management by public health officials and advocates.
Does this make Falsettos a period piece? Perhaps so, in terms of specific political and social campaigns. However, the crux of Falsettos, the meaning of family and community, and the need to seek and embrace authentic love, is as relevant as ever, and no doubt always will be. This speaks to people of any gender identity or sexual orientation. It is a very human story that speaks straight to the heart.
Falsettos , through February 24, 2019, at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts, 345 Washington Street, Saint Paul MN. Tickets from $117 - $68.00, Partial View: $48.00, Standing Room: $34.00. Educator and student rush tickets 30 minutes before curtain, two tickets per valid ID. For tickets call 651 224-4222 or visit Ordway.org. For information on the tour go to falsettosbroadway.com.
William Finn and James Lapine; Music and Lyrics: William Finn; Director: James Lapine; Choreographer: Spencer Liff; Orchestrations: Michael Starobin; Set Design: David Rockwell; Costume Design: Jennifer Caprio; Lighting Design: Jeff Croiter; Sound Design: Dan Moses Schreier; Hair and Wigs: Tom Watson; Music Supervision: Vadim Feichtner; Conductor: P. Jason Yarcho; Casting: Tara Rubin CSA, Eric Woodall CSA, Kaitlin Shaw CSA; Production Stage Manager: Gregory R. Covert; Associate Director: Eric Santagata; Assistant Choreographer: Ellenore Scott.
Cast: Nick Adams (Whizzer), Nick Blaemire (Mendel), Audrey Cardwell (Cordelia), Eden Espinosa (Trina), Thatcher Jacobs * (Jason), Jim Kaplan * (Jason), Bryonha Marie Parham (Dr. Charlotte), Max von Essen (Marvin). *Alternating performances