3/23/2019        FALSETTOS                                                Actor's Express

 

*****  ( A+ ) 

 

WANTING IT ALL

So, the situation's this, it's not hard to comprehend.   In 1979, composer William Finn (The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee) premiered (off Broadway) a little one-act musical called In Trousers, about a charming New Yorker named Marvin.  Marvin has a wife and son, and spends the play reminiscing about his High School girlfriend, his crush on his English teacher and his growing attraction towards men, especially a "pretty boy" named Whizzer (the musical highlight of that show is a single-entendre little ditty called "Whizzer Going Down").

Two years later, Finn introduced a sequel (or was it a rewrite?), March of the Falsettos, that continued Marvin's story as he leaves his wife, only to see her marry their therapist.  His plaintive "I Want it All" ("Kid, Wife AND Lover") is the ambivalent (and smugly self-satisfied) prologue to his world falling apart.  

A third sequel, Falsettoland, extended Marvin's story into the era of AIDS, and its effect on families and friendships and relationships.

Broadway finally saw the story in 1992, as March of the Falsettos and Falsettoland were combined into a single show, Falsettos.  (The show-stopping "I'm Breaking Down" from a 1985 revision of In Trousers was added to Act One).

So, Marvin and company have been around for a while in one form or another, and continually prove to be crowd pleasers.  In fact, the 2016 Broadway Revival of Falsettos was taped and shown in movie theatres as a successful "Fathom Events" special event, a taping still available on BroadwatHD.com, which, of course, i watched and reviewed two short years ago.  (A lightly-edited version was rebroadcast on PBS's "Great Performances.")

 

I've been a fan of the score of March of the Falsettos since its LP Release, and have enjoyed Falsettoland (almost) as much. I was even able to track down a bootleg cassette of the In Trousers score which currently languishes in the dusty mystery that is my basement.  So, I was mui-mui excited to get to see it live at Actor's Express, and, to be blunt, I was NOT disappointed.  

I know these songs very much indeed, and I relished seeing them brought to life by a troupe of talented actors.  Yes, I knew these were character-driven plays -- Act One is primarily a series of vignettes as Marvin realizes he really CAN'T have it all, and Act Two parallels the stories of Marvin's son's Bar Mitzvah and Whizzer's fight with AIDS -- but I was impressed with the amount of subtlety, the layers of emotional complexity that come out when actually watching real-life people-of-talent performing them.  More to the point, this production is very different from the Broadway revival, and I never felt a sense of been-there seen-that.  It was as if I were watching new characters, new songs.

By this time, I am no longer surprised at how complex my own response can be to these people -- sure, Craig Waldrip gives Marvin all the requisite charm and appeal, but he's also a bit of an ass, petulant and spoiled, and totally oblivious to how badly he treats those he loves.  Whizzer (Jordan Dell Harris) is every cliché of a "pretty boy" boy toy, narcissistic, ever on-the-prowl.  But he is also a loving "step-father," and his relationship with Marvin's son has a ton of appeal.  And his ultimate doom drives the powerful conclusion of the piece.

Jessica de Maria is an engaging Trina (Marvin's wife), making her sympathetic and marvelously neurotic -- her "I'm Breaking Down," is a musical and comic highlight of her performance.  Ben Thorpe is tremendous as Mendel, making the psychiatrist-as-cliché nature of the character a warmly amusing self-aware aspect that, to my mind, makes him better than his video counterpart.

On the other hand, in the video I was MOST impressed by the young actor playing Jason, and here it's the same.  The part is being shared by Alex Newberg and Vinny Montague, and, at the performance I saw,  Mr.Newberg gave a singularly impressive performance, more than holding his own with his more experienced castmates (including the always reliable Kylie Brown and Kandice Arrington as the Act II "Lesbians Next Door").  Every facial expression, every interaction, every musical moment seemed, to my overly familiar ears, exciting and superb.  Here's hoping Mr. Montague can match him song for song, moment for moment.

I may have been impressed by the revival's "3-D Puzzle Cube" set that expanded and reformed as furniture and set pieces, but director Freddie Ashley and his design team have proven that to be more of a "grace note" than a heartbeat.  James Ogden's simple set is an elevated walkway over a mostly empty space (a few platforms give opportunities for elegant elevations and stage pictures), arrayed with audience on two sides (echoing Stage Door's permanent space), and it works superbly.  A few chairs, a table, and a hospital bed are the only transient set pieces.  Joseph P. Monaghan's Lighting Design makes brilliant use of LED strips and floods, creating dozens of different tones and highlights and colors and moods.  This show looks and sounds terrific!

As I fully expected, it's the music that really steals the show.  Completely sung-through, these songs are filled with ambivalence and melody and humor.  Favorites include the opening "Four Jews in a Room Bitching," "This Had Better Come to a Stop," "I Never Wanted to Love You," the gently simple "Father to Son," which originally concluded "March of the Falsettos," and here ushers in the Intermission.  Act Two favorites include "Something Bad is Happening," "Unlikely Lovers"," and the climactic "What Would I do?"   Most of these songs were written before Finn's breakout shows A New Brain and The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, but they show a range of story-telling songwriting that promises even more greatness to come.

In the final analysis, then (Is this therapy?), Falsettos is an emotionally layered look at the choices that faced gay men in the late '70's, as well as the AIDS-related consequences of those choices a few years later.  It was decades ahead of its time in its acceptance (and celebration) of alternate family structures.  It is filled to the brim with memorable music, and its story is told by an ensemble of talented creative Atlantans in peak form.

In my mind, it was the perfect way to spend a Saturday evening.  It would be the perfect way to spend ANY evening.

     -- Brad Rudy (BKRudy@aol.com    @bk_rudy    #AEFalsettos)


 

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