Turning thirteen comes with its share of bad luck. The precocious young Jason (Noah Chiet) sees his upcoming bar mitzvah as an entry into adulthood, but the move from point A to point B can prove to be a rocky one. As director Jeffrey Johnson’s modest, intelligent production gently reminds us, our life paths are marked most memorably by the unexpected twists and turns. If you’re good — or maybe just lucky — you can fake it ’til you make it.
So who are these fakers, these troubled souls masquerading as perfectly happy people? The question imbues Falsettos — the classic and ever-likeable whipped meringue of a musical by William Finn and James Lapine — with a much-needed undercurrent of unease and emotional caution. It has its moments of sunny self-discovery, but more often it’s something bluer and more complex, as the characters reckon with the inherent damage done by something as simple as sharing feelings honestly.
As the show begins, Jason’s father Marvin (Johnson) comes to a new chapter in his own life, and declares himself, like his son, hungry for a true, honest life of independence. Unlike his son, though, this means coming out as a gay man — a move that shakes the foundations of his fatherhood just as it explodes his marriage to Trina (Lisa Carrier Baker, playing the reactionary wife role with appreciable poise). In keeping such a dire secret from his wife and child for so long, does Marvin amount to a false man? If those you love fear that you’re still pretending, how do you convince them you care?
Finn and Lapine first raised these questions in the 1981 one-act musical March of the Falsettos, the story which now comprises the first act and, when paired with the 1990 follow-up one-act Falsettoland, earned the duo Tony Awards for Best Book and Best Score in 1992. Although it has its zany moments and some very stubborn, very funny battles among big personalities, Falsettos is really a confessional — a neat trick given the era in which it debuted, at a very different time in our growing collective understanding of gay American life. Marvin is heartbroken by the cold shoulder he’s getting, even as his son warms to Marvin’s charismatic lover Whizzer (Michael Sazonov, putting in the most powerful singing of the evening). Jason just wants a normal life. Trina is, to say the least, upset as well.
And, because it’s upper-middle-class New York, they’re all talking it out in therapy. Even Mendel (Tony Gudell), their well-loved psychiatrist, over time grows too involved with the family’s tangled romances for Marvin’s comfort. A lighthearted appearance by two gay family friends in the second act (Barbara Papendorp and Tammy Roberts) round out the cast in a way only a pair of self-titled Lesbians Next Door really can.
The group jives nicely, sharing a tone of smooth, even conversational singing style that can be forgiven for getting ahead of the music at moments or drifting once or twice on the harmonies. Their voices are strong not just for volume and clarity but for the earnestness of small emotions, with subtle inflection that doesn’t push too hard against the sometimes-soapy plot points. Christopher Wingert’s band — hidden save for an electronic keyboard onstage done up to look like a grand piano — deserve applause for setting a strong non-stop pace for a long show, although they have a few moments too of coming a little unlaced, perhaps due in part to sightline issues between onstage and off.
The show performs on a brand-new stage called Noi’s Nook in the back room of the store Go Mama Go! on 14th Street. It’s a space with a lot of character and not a lot of square footage, but the cast makes it work well with compact blocking and a measured sense of visual style. Both acts are entirely sung, but there’s just enough movement and variation to bring the show out of mere stand-and-deliver mode — an especially important task given how frequently one or two characters sing intimate songs about secret loves and private guilt directly to the audience. The design is fairly simple: the whole show is done in shades of white and gray infused with spots and streaks of deep turquoise — a necktie and a pair of shoelaces here, a chessboard and a baseball bat there — and a few rolling chairs.
The easy, non-literal setting allows for some nifty moments of ambiguity, as when Marvin silently sticks around onstage to watch his wife fall in love with his therapist. You’ll find many scenes funnier than this one — the timing is great throughout, and the ensemble has mastered the art of quipping mid-verse — but it’s in these quieter moments that we can appreciate Johnson’s smart, coolheaded turn as Marvin, the man at the center of the storm. It can be tricky to maintain subtlety in a show that airs so much dirty laundry, but understatement pays off in the end and keeps us invested in his struggle to hold onto family and to be a man his loved ones recognize.
The question of manhood — real or imagined — teases throughout, as when the older male ensemble matches young Jason’s natural range by singing “March of the Falsettos” in, of course, their highest vocal register. It’s a gesture of camaraderie, but also a poignant little sequence about reaching to be something you’re not. Some notes feel too far away to hit, but perhaps you’ve got a shot if you’re willing to adopt a voice that’s other than your own. The falsetto’s an ambitious little trick, like a singer’s game of make-believe — it only comes out when we pretend the steepest targets are within easy reach. Not bad advice for an ambitious young father: always work to build a world that can hold up the high notes.
Music and Lyrics by William Finn
Book by James Lapine
Directed by Jeffrey Johnson
Music Direction by Christopher Wingert
Produced by Ganymede Arts
Reviewed by Hunter Styles
Falsettos plays thru Oct 10, 2010.
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