BWW Reviews: ATP's FALSETTOS is Funny, Moving, and Brilliant
I'll never forget my first encounter with Falsettos, the daring musical by William Finn and James Lapine. I was a student at UCLA's School of Theater, Film, and Television, and I was taking a course titled "The History of the American Musical." My professor, the late and great Gary Gardner, spent a good chunk of one class on Falsettos, a show he called one of the few great musicals of the 1980s/1990s and "a breath of fresh air compared to that British import crap from Andrew Lloyd Webber." According to Professor Gardner, Ethel Merman is God and Andrew Lloyd Webber is the devil, but that's a topic for another day.
At any rate, I was intrigued by what Professor Gardner said about Falsettos enough to buy a copy of the cast album. I distinctly remember listening to the album for the first time. I was in my dorm room and my roommate was studying, so I put on some headphones and hit play. I didn't get more than 15 seconds into the opening number, "Four Jews in a Room Bitching" without laughing aloud. My roommate looked at me like I was crazy.
Sadly, the outstanding cast album has been my only exposure to Falsettos for nearly a decade. Productions of the musical are hard to come by. Theater companies are put off by William Finn's complex score, and some of the content is a little uncomfortable for some to address. Thankfully Austin Theatre Project has the guts and gumption to tackle this show. Their production of Falsettos is a must see for many reasons, the least of which is how infrequently the show is staged.
The musical, which premiered on Broadway in 1992, is a combination of two one-act musicals (March of the Falsettos and Falsettoland) which premiered Off-Broadway in 1981 and 1990 respectively. The show involves Marvin, who leaves his wife, Trina, and son, Jason, for his lover, Whizzer. However, Marvin yearns for a "tight-knit family," and insists that he and Whizzer live with Trina and Jason. Naturally, this causes some friction, and Trina and Jason begin seeing Marvin's shrink, Mendel. Mendel and Trina hit it off, and soon Mendel moves in with the unorthodox family.
Needless to say, the show was exceedingly bold and ahead of its time. Twenty years later, TV shows like The New Normal are exploring similar families, and it's still controversial. But there's far more going on in Falsettos than controversial musings on family. William Finn's score is tuneful and memorable yet complex, and his lyrics span from hysterically funny to insightful and poignant.
Though the material may be difficult and demanding, Austin Theatre Project has a track record for excelling with challenging, infrequently produced musicals. Falsettos is no exception. Much of the success of the production is due to the show's director, Jeff Hinkle. Hinkle smartly contrasts the complexity of the material with his blissfully simple, actor-driven staging. Doing so lets the brilliant score and incredible cast take center stage.
Of course, that technique only pays off if the cast is up to the task, and this small ensemble is extraordinary. Kristen Bennett and Laura Galt are excellent as Charlotte and Cordelia, respectively, the lesbian next door neighbors who appear in the second act. They may not have much to do, but they are both gifted performers and thrilling singers. As Mendel, Len Carrell is a goofy, nerdy scene-stealer, and watching him evolve into a stepfather over the course of the show is adorably endearing. Libby Detling is outstanding as Trina, as should be expected from a B. Iden Payne Award nominee. She's more than able to hold her own against the men around her, and her uninhibited take on her act one solo "I'm Breaking Down" brings down the house. Josh Wechsler plays Whizzer as witty, teasing, occasionally feisty, and his solo numbers are highlights of the evening. Without giving too much away, the emotional impact of the second act relies on a capable actor in the role of Whizzer, and Wechsler is able to create emotional gravitas without being heavy handed. And in the leading role of Marvin, Andrew Bosworth does what should be impossible. He takes a self-centered, mean-spirited, violent tempered character and makes him somehow likeable. For some reason, you want Marvin to get the tight-knit family he dreams of, even if he may not truly deserve it.