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Review: FALSETTOS at MAD Theatre of Tampa

Review: FALSETTOS at MAD Theatre of Tampa

William Finn and James Lapine’s stunning musical is onstage again in Tampa for the first time since 1999, and this cast is a must-see.

Falsettos, a primarily sung-through musical was written by William Finn and James Lapine and features two one-act installments March of the Falsettos and Falsettoland. The aforementioned are the last two additions to a trio of one-act musicals by Finn and Lapine, the other being called In Trousers.

Our story centers around Marvin, who has recently left his wife and son, to be with a man. Marvin has taken on a lover in Whizzer, a much younger man. Marvin continually struggles to keep his family afloat all while maintaining a relationship with Whizzer and trying to continue his relationship with his son Jason. Much of the first act explores the tension and strain Marvin's relationship with Whizzer has on his family.

While Marvin is courting around with Whizzer, Trina, Marvin's wife begins counseling to deal with the undoing of her relationship. While during counseling she meets Mendel, her psychiatrist. Soon the pair form a bond and decide to get married.

In the second act, we find Marvin and Trina preparing a bar mitzvah for their son Jason who is coming of age. Adding into the mix a couple of lesbians who live next door to Marvin and Whizzer, one is an internist, the other a caterer. All the while planning the bar mitzvah, Marvin has seemingly left Whizzer, but as they continue to work and rekindled their relationship, Whizzer gets sick with an unknown disorder.

Themes of gay life in the 1970s and 80s, Jewish life/identity, and gender roles are all intermixed into the storyline of Finn and Lapine's musical. It also deals with the AIDS epidemic of the time, and the shocking unknown that follows.

Falsettos first premiered on Broadway in 1992 and was nominated for seven Tony Awards. Of the seven awards, the show won Best Book and Best Original Score. Falsettos was revived on Broadway in 2016 starring Christian Borle, Andrew Rannels, and Stephanie J. Block. The 2016 Revival was nominated for five Tony Awards including Best Revival. In 2016 the Revival was filmed and adapted for PBS Live from Lincoln Center and aired in October of 2017. The original cast and the revival came together for a performance at the Tony Awards. Since 2016 other revivals have been produced and have toured in Australia and the United Kingdom.

The musical has been praised by critics over the years for its humor, character development, and positive portrayal of non-traditional family structures "A Tight-Knit Family."

The interesting inception of Falsettos came after many trials. Finn first wrote In Trousers which was not received well by critics. Continuing writing around the storyline of the character Marvin, Finn and Lapine collaborated on March of the Falsettos.

After almost a decade following the completion of March of the Falsettos, Finn followed up with Falsettoland during the wake of the AIDS Epidemic of the 1980s. Upon completion of Falsettoland, Finn and Lapine decided to combine the two into a cohesive consistent and unified piece. Judging by the heavy themes found in Falsettoland, Finn decided to rely on making the audiences laugh as opposed to bringing on the tears.

The interesting thing about Falsettos as a whole, despite the incredible musical score, the plot can come off convoluted and messy. This in part by fact that those who knew Finn personally came to know him as often disorganized. When writing Falsettos he had a hard time placing the order of songs in sequence of events. Finding it hard to figure out where to place the bar mitzvah, Finn settled on this idea of holding it in a hospital, after the idea appeared to him in a dream. Other moments of clarity came from the haftorah which is read by Jason at the bar mitzvah. It was the same text in which Finn used in his bar mitzvah, but he got bored, and instead threw in words that were musically enjoyable but were grammatically not correct in Hebrew.

Boasting a whopping 43 musical numbers over the course of two acts, proves to be a mammoth feat for even the most seasoned performer.

Director Tony Gilkinson, Artistic Director for MAD Theatre of Tampa, has assembled a top--notch "Tight-Knit Family," to bring Finn and Lapines' musical to life.

Leading our cast, and subsequently the story that follows, is the incredibly talented Marcus Blake as Marvin. Mr. Blake's singing voice is incredibly smooth in moments of tenderness, and completely transcendent in moments of grief. There is a lot of words in many of the songs in this show, and Marcus handles it with precision and ease. A strong turn from Mr. Blake and probably my favorite role I have seen him in to date. You get a sense of his love, his pain, his need to be a good father, and a good lover. Marcus wears his heart on his sleeve as Marvin, and this is a performance that will remain rent free in my head for some time.

As Trina, Jessica Berger Vitalo is a marvel. Her voice soars into the rafters, and I could listen to her sing anything. Highlights of the night include "I'm Breaking Down," and "Holding the Ground." Jessica is stunning here, and every Jewish mother to a "t." Having last experienced her as "The Drowsy Chaperone," in the musical of the same name, I was excited to get to see her perform again, this time in a role perfectly suited for her.

As Cordelia, Gabrielle Ray is perfect as the lesbian caterer from next door. Her vocals are impressive, and her chemistry with Casey Vaughn's Charlotte is on point the entire time. We do not get to see Cordelia and Charlotte until Act 2, but it was well worth the wait.

As Charlotte, the internist, Casey Vaughn's vocals are out of this world. Strong from first entrance, she makes an incredible impact on the world of the show. When you see her begin to discover what AIDS really is, you feel the weight placed upon her shoulders. A truly wonderful performance from Casey and a welcomed return to MAD Theatre, since her turn as Diana in Next to Normal a few years back.

Whizzer, the "antagonist" of our story is played by the incredibly talented Evan Lomba. His vocals are top-notch, and choreography is always exceptional, though I feel the key was changed for Whizzer's 11 o'clock number "These are the games I play." Evan sings his face off, and his talent shines especially in "Games I Play," and "You Gotta Die Sometime."

Allow me to preface the following, as I had a slight struggle with the portrayal here. This is in no part anything against the talent that Evan has, because his presence is unmatched and he is always exceptional, however, its the choices made, that I find myself scratching my head.First and foremost, Whizzer is one of the more difficult roles in the show to tackle. The other issue I have is the very noticeable difference in age from Marvin to Whizzer. Part of this has to do with life experience. Its the same struggle I share with High School aged kids doing Spring Awakening, I have a hard time finding it believable. Again, nothing against the talent displayed, because it truly is exceptional. My struggle has to do with casting a younger Whizzer, that may not have experienced life to the extent of being able to portray a certain role. Sure, we are in 2023 and age gaps in a relationship are null and void at this point, but as Whizzer, Evan Lomba's portrayal is a slight stretch, being that he doesn't look old enough to play a fatherly role, albeit a stand-in father. Something that will fair for him later in life. You need someone mid 30's to portray Whizzer, then maybe the picture the audiences live with for two hours will not come across so unsettling.

As Jason, Sam Sobel is a wonderful addition to the company. Playing the child and the center of most of the story is a hard road to lead, but Sam does so with ease. My favorite moment of his is during "Baseball Game." Kudos to Sam, for he truly has fun with the role, and adds a great layer to show.

Finally, as Mendel, Chris Cordero pulls out all the stops. Providing not only comic relief, but audience interaction, his Mendel is exceptional. Vocals always outstanding, and his presence onstage unmatched, we get a true sense of the type of performer Mr. Cordero is. He is completely in the moment from start to finish, and his interactions with both Trina and Jason are full of joy, and wonderful to watch. Chris Cordero is always in his element onstage and as Mendel this is no exception. I will go to the moon and back to experience his work onstage, and I am humbled to have experienced many of his performances over the years. In an exceptionally strong company, Mr. Cordero comes out slightly ahead and for me earns the title of "Best in Show."

Tony Gilkinson's strong direction brings Falsettos back to Tampa Bay, and for me its wonderful to have him in the Director's chair again following a 4 year hiatus. You can tell, his passion for the show, and his want to bring this show to the stage for 30 years, makes this an exciting moment in his repertoire. He expertly paces the show, and with a show like Falsettos that is no small feat. Staging a staggering 43 musical numbers can seem cumbersome, but Tony proves he can expertly stage a complex world such as Falsettos with precision and a keen eye to detail.

From a technical standpoint, Falsettos works as a representational world. You will find no real furniture, but rather pieces formed together to make furniture and then come apart again. Much like the coming together, and splitting apart of the relationships in the show, the furniture takes on the same concept. Kit Hastings Set Design works well for the world in which the characters reside. I liked the use of the role out piece for the bed, that is just as easily tucked away. Lighting Design by Anthony Vito perfectly evokes the world of the show, and allows the characters to move about the space with ease. There is a strange moment where Mendel is in the dark in his office, not sure if this was a hang and focus issue, or just a placement of the performer onstage. Lindsay Ellis' Costume Design fit perfectly for the time period of the show, and gives each character a unique identity. Bo Garrard's Sound Design fits perfectly into the world of the show. Choreography by Evan Lomba was executed with precision and expert timing, not a step/sequence out of place, and allowing our characters to enjoy their time on stage.

Music Director Megan Zeitler perfectly assembled a five piece band to lead us through the 43 songs in the book of Falsettos. She provided exceptional accompainment to our perfomers, and in the Shimberg's intimate setting a live band can be cubersome at times, however, in this instance everything worked. Allowing the audience the ability to perfectly hear the performers and the band equally. Shout out to the incredible musicians involved, Alex Pasut on Bass, Julia Ford on Reeds, Nico Remi on Percussion, David Estevez and Xander McColley on Piano.

Falsettos is a tough show to stage, but MAD Theatre takes a difficult show, and packs it with so much heart. Not a dry eye in the audience following the show, and for some they were consumed with emotions following the performance and could barely hold it together. True superfans, that is who comes out for Falsettos. Do yourself a favor, take a moment to visit the Shimberg through February 19th to catch Falsettos. MAD Theatre of Tampa continually puts there stamp on the Tampa Bay Theatre Community, and now in their 24th season we are sure glad they are here. Tickets for Falsettos can be purchased by visiting This dynamic cast, this incredible story, told in a unique way, makes William Finn's Falsettos the perfect ticket to share with your very own "Tight-Knit Family," and after nearly 2 decades its the perfect time for this story to be told again.

Photo Credit: Chaz D Photography

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