BWW Review: FALSETTOS at SHN Golden Gate Theatre: outstanding 2016 revival hits the road in this musical masterpiece by James Lapine and William Finn.
Music and Lyrics by William Finn
Book and Direction by James Lapine
SHN Golden Gate Theatre
The changing fabric of an American family is eloquently and humorously depicted in this stunning touring production of the recent Lincoln Center revival of Tony winner's James Lapine and William Finn's Falsettos. Written in the early 80's, the groundbreaking musical presented an unconventional picture of neurotic Marvin, who comes out of the closet and leaves his wife Trina for the young, stylish but superficial Whizzer. Caught in the middle is 12-year-old Jason who must learn how to be a man from a variety of sources. Toss in a lesbian couple and a Jewish psychiatrist and you have and beautifully executed vision of an alternative extended family full of love and drama.
This 2016 revival was nominated for five Tony's, the original won Best Book and Best Musical back in 1992. Lapine's story is timeless and universal, its characters sympathetic and likable. Who hasn't been touched by a death in the family, a divorce, or the blossoming of a young man's identity in a world swirling with possibilities? Marvin's failure of his marriage added to the abandonment he feels towards his son is heartbreaking, as is the torment of his wife Trina.
There are moments of humor to balance the pathos; Marvin and Whizzer's affair has the right amount of highly identifiable gay melodrama, the comic angst of planning Jason's Bar Mitzvah and the highly unconventional scenes between Psychiatrist Mendel and his patients Marvin, then Trina (whom he woos), then little Jason (who will become his step-son).
William Finn's score is transcendent. With very little spoken dialogue, it feels as though every character lives and breathes the music and everyone gets ample chance to shine. It's a contemporary opera done in Finn's stream of consciousness style. Its strong all the way through with not a wasted tune or lyric. Opening with the comic "Four Jews in a Room Bitching", Finn sets the play's tone by having the four male characters kvetch about their fragility. Trina sings of the frustrations of her situation in another comic number, "I'm Breaking Down". Whizzer pours out his anger in "The Games I Play", and Marvin loving serenades his lover in the hopeful "What More Can I Say". There's an equitable distribution of great songs among the seven characters. The overarching theme of Lapine's book is quite gay, written at the beginning of the AIDS pandemic that rocked his NYC theater community. But the play is so much more. Finn's score is sensitive, touching and ultimately uplifting.
So, what do you do with great material? You hire a great cast, and this touring production overachieves in every role. Led by Broadway heavyweights Nick Adams (La Cage aux Folles and Priscilla Queen of the Desert) as "Whizzer," Eden Espinosa (Wicked, Brooklyn The Musical and Rent) as "Trina" and Max von Essen (An American in Paris, Tony Award-nominee, Evita and Les Misérables) as "Marvin", the rest of the family includes Nick Blaemire (Broadway's Cry-Baby, Godspell and Off-Broadway's tick...tick...Boom!) as "Mendel," Audrey Cardwell (First National Tours of Bright Star and Cinderella) as "Cordelia," Bryonha Marie Parham (Broadway's Ragtime, Porgy and Bess and Prince of Broadway) as "Dr. Charlotte" and Thatcher Jacobs as "Jason."
The final component is the technical look of the show and it's another home run. The first act set is a giant fabric cube. Not solid, it is broken apart and rearranged by the actors to become structures, furniture and containers for other props. Like a nightmare IKEA piece that can't be put together, the static cube comes alive and is an integral component of show. Stunning in its simple complexity, David Rockwell's set and Jeff Croiter's mesmerizing lighting project a very modern yet sophisticated elegance. Spencer Liff, whose choreography I loved in last year's Head Over Heels, has another hit on his hands.
Falsettos succeeds in presenting something we know is reality but is being severely challenged in today's charged atmosphere. Diversity, be it in the family or sexual identity resonate with today's audiences who will be drawn to the humanity in Lapin end Finn's lovely musical.
Photos by Joan Marcus