Review: FALSETTOS at Front Porch Theatricals Pairs a Warm Heart with a Cold Shoulder

This William Finn musical runs May 19-28 at the New Hazlett

Review: FALSETTOS at Front Porch Theatricals Pairs a Warm Heart with a Cold Shoulder

What Stephen Sondheim is to musical theatre conventions, William Finn is to Stephen Sondheim conventions: he's pricklier, chillier, more neurotic, less concerned with tunefulness or song structure. William Finn writes shows about desperately unhappy people copin gwith the realities of adult life (though, unlike Sondheim, he's not nearly as averse to the realistic nuances of love and sex). If you go to a William Finn musical and you leave humming the tunes, or even remembering them, you're a mathematical genius and should probably apply to grad school right away. Which is to say, William Finn is an artist's artist and not always an audience's artist. The fact that his musical The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee has become a perennial around the country is more of a fluke than anything, and Falsettos is easily his most challenging show and score. It's not a show most places would attempt, let alone succeed with. But Front Porch Theatricals has built its entire history around attempting these less-produced, unconventional shows, and once again they've got themselves a hit.

If Falsettos has a non-William-Finn neighbor in the land of musical theatre, its closest counterpart would be Next to Normal: they're both sung through, more than musicals but less than operas, dealing with family dysfunction and physical or mental illness. But while the Tom Kitt country-rock music in Next to Normal is approachable and conventional, fitting the broad-strokes Lifetime movie melodrama of that plot, William Finn's writing, assisted by James Lapine's libretto, is wild, hyperactive and hyper-associative. It is the musical equivalent of a mind- several minds actually- functioning in real time. Characters sing at and over each other more than they sing to each other, and the moments when a conventional melody or song structure breaks through usually illustrates a moment of shared clarity. It can be an overwhelming experience, and like Shakespeare, you sometimes need to simply lean back and take it all in. But once you've gotten the knack for Finn's somewhat impressionistic world, it feels as natural as anything. It becomes something like a prestige HBO dramedy, but with music.

The story follows an unconventional blended family over a decade from the seventies to the eighties- traditional patriarch Marvin (Chad Elder) has recently divorced his wife Trina (Jenna Kantor), come out of the closet, and begun a monogamous relationship with his lover Whizzer (Sal Bucci). Despite this, Marvin and Whizzer continue to cohabitate with Trina, who has begun a relationship with Marvin and Trina's therapist Mendel (Justin Borak). These four individuals are also doing their best to coparent Marvin and Trina's tweenage son Jason (Matthew Frontz), who appears to be on the spectrum and has hyperfixated on chess. It's not a warm and fuzzy sitcom, but it's not bleak either... and then Act 2 takes us into the eighties, and we all know what happened to the queer community in the eighties. 

The cast for this show, to put it mildly, is amazing. Not only are the performances fantastic, it's a feat of endurance to even attempt this William Finn epic (let's take a moment and shout out our swings Dan Mayhak, Anna Gergerich and Liv Poole for learning basically every word of this three-hour musical). Chad Elder, as Marvin, balances the demands of playing our protagonist with the wrinkles of playing a difficult, emotionally closed-off and somewhat misogynistic and chauvanistic alpha male who also happens to be an out and proud gay man in the seventies. It's a tightrope walk to keep from being a villain, a cypher or a stereotype, and Elder manages time and again to keep us from ultimately hating Marvin. As Marvin's boyfriend Whizzer, Sal Bucci does fantastic work at slowly revealing the hidden depths and inner life of what initially appears to be a shallow caricature of the femme gay man. He's no saint, he's not Angel Dumont Schunard, but Whizzer nonetheless becomes the show's heart in Bucci's sometimes tart but often tender portrayal. Matthew Frontz's Jason is one of the best performances, in one of the biggest roles, I've ever seen a preteen performer give in a musical, and trust me: Jason makes Annie look like Annie Jr. 

As Mendel, Justin Borak's wonderfully neurotic nebbish portrayal makes this sweet but sometimes problematic doctor into almost a teddy bear: no matter how ill-conceived his romantic passion or how questionable his parenting skills, you can't help but love Mendel anyway. And then there's Trina, a truly towering comedic/dramatic performance by Jenna Kantor. When Kantor takes the stage for "I'm Breaking Down," a rising and falling patter tour de force, she comes close to stealing the whole show before it's even halfway through. 

Near the show's end, the neutral woody set by Johnmichael Bohach undergoes a minor coup de theatre that displays a final burst of color. I'll admit, it's the one moment in the show I didn't know exactly how to parse; it felt as though it were leading to something which never fully arrived. But this musical is much more about the journey than the destination: much as the decidedly uncomfy characters in it gradually become a loving family (plus some lesbians, who join in Act 2 and are mostly exposition dumpers), the audience and the show meet in the middle and find their common ground by the end. Go see Falsettos, people: you'll never see anything else quite like it. What more can I say?


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