Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Also see Arty's recent review of Passage
It doesn't hurt that the show in question is a stunning work of musical theater, with a score by William Finn that ranges from jaunty song and dance to soaring melodies that can break one's heart, and a book by Finn and James Lapine that is smart, funny, and completely on point, its point being the manner in which the old notion of family can be–must be–rewritten to accommodate a new openness to diverse sexual and gender roles and identities, and a remove from the preceding generations.
Falsettos appeared to acclaim as a two-act musical in 1992, but its constituent parts began separately. Its first act premiered in 1981 as a fully-contained one act musical, March of the Falsettos, set two years earlier prior, in 1979. It captured the apex of a kind of conspicuous "gay liberation" anchored in New York and other large metropolises ten years after Stonewall, as decades and centuries of oppression found release in a newfound openness. It likely was the tenor of the times that gave Marvin, the show's central character, the gumption to acknowledge his preference for men and leave his wife Trina and ten-year-old son Jason for a younger man named Whizzer.
Marvin seems to have no qualms about having done what was right–for him–nd is cavalier about its impact on Trina and Jason. To foster his well-being, Marvin requests that Trina make an appointment with his therapist, Mendel, which Trina, her self-esteem torpedoed, obligingly does. What Marvin never bargains for is that Mendel would become besotted with Trina and that the two would form a couple. The show depicts the twisted turns every relationship on stage takes to find its place in some kind of new family: Marvin's less than balanced relationship with Whizzer; Mendel's serendipitous relationship with Trina; Trina and Marvin working out ways to co-parent and at least pretend to support each other's happiness; and everyone's relationship with Jason, who seems to have the most mature perspective on the whole entanglement.
In 1981, just as March of the Falsettos was premiering off-Broadway, doctors were seeing a new strain of disease primarily afflicting homosexual men and usually fatal. What was at first referred to as "gay cancer" was soon known as Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, AIDS. By 1989, when Finn and Lapine went to work on a sequel to March of the Falsettos, AIDS was a full-blown epidemic, striking terror in the gay community. The sequel, Falsettoland, another one-act musical, is set in 1981, as the blend of angst and elation Marvin, Whizzer, Trina and Mendel have themselves realized–and inflicted on Jason–over the past two years in their lives is suddenly pierced by the storm clouds of disease. A lesbian couple joins the set of characters: Charlotte, a doctor among the first to encounter the troubling new disease; and Cordelia, a Kosher caterer helping clients address such "first world problems" as what to serve at an out-of-control bar mitzvah reception.
Audiences seeing Falsettoland knew far too well what dark days lay ahead for the Marvins and Whizzers of the world. As Dr. Charlotte sings "Something very bad is happening," Marvin and his new-age "tight-knit family" have no idea of the scope of catastrophe they are a part of–except as it affects them personally. Combining the two one-acts into a two-act musical was perhaps inevitable and certainly brilliant, offering in one sitting the sweep of lives rearranging, finding new handholds and pathways as they go and as the scope of their journeys veers from freedom to affliction. The two halves differ in tone–the first act is peppered with cynicism and indecision, the songs more aggressively seeking new ways to live, while the second is more conciliatory and tender, its score containing soaring love songs that never fail to bring tears to the corners of my eyes. Despite its heartbreak, Falsettos delivers an indisputable affirmation that love is worth the aggravation and pain.
Another theme courses through Falsettos, which is Jewish identity. While the experiences the characters endure could occur among members of any religion, ethnicity or race, Finn, who is Jewish, made the Jewishness of his characters very evident, starting with the opening number, "Four Jews in a Room Bitching." In the second act, Jason is twelve and preparing for his bar mitzvah, the ceremony in which, according to Jewish tradition, thirteen-year-old boys complete the requisite ritual tasks to enter manhood. The course of events that transpires could be seen as moving not only Jason but Whizzer, Mendel, and especially Marvin beyond stunted emotions and into manhood.
As for the Latté Da production, it is knock-down fabulous. McDonough has assembled a cast that sings Finn's score with full-throated beauty. Sasha Andreev shines as a Marvin sabotaged by his own tendency to be self-satisfied and delivers a gut-wrenching "What More Can I Say?," as he seems for the first time to discover that tenderness is an aspect of love. Serena Brook gives a revelatory performance that displays every facet of Trina's response to the forces in her life. Her "Breaking Down" is a showstopper and her "Holding to the Ground" drew my heart high up in my throat. As Mendel, Eric Morris thrashes wildly and with great humor to hang on to his great fortune in finding a home with Trina and Jason. Max Wojtanowicz as Whizzer is movingly defiant in the face of Marvin's arrogance ("The Games I Play") and life's uncertainties ("You Gotta Die Sometime"). As Jason, Sam Mandell holds his own with his more seasoned co-stars, bringing bracing honesty to every scene. Sheena Janson Kelley as Charlotte and Sara Masterson as Cordelia don't show up until Act Two but are very bit a match to their castmates.
The small cast (for a musical) show is given a number of opportunities to integrate dance and movement, with Emily Michaels King providing witty choreography that remains true to the characters. Grant E. Merges's lighting washes the production in the emotional sweep of the narrative, and Katherine Horowitz's sound design delivers the voices and instruments with splendid clarity. Rich Hamson designed costumes that serve as extensions of each character's persona. The set by Mina Kinukawa is a bit perplexing, especially in Act One with a huge bright yellow background piece that resembles a rising staircase, though it is never used as such. Still, the otherwise spare set allows for fluid transitions from scene to scene with just enough suggestion of place to provide the necessary context and leave the focus on people. Also, it supports the staging in making terrific use of swivel chairs on rollers that sail across the stage to move characters from scene to scene.
Full disclosure, I have loved Falsettos since hearing the original cast CDs thirty years ago and have loved every production of it I have seen, including a national tour that played at the Ordway. Thus, I was inclined to love the show once again and yet, with such high expectations there is the chance of being disappointed. McDonough's handling of the material and the cast's exceptional performances did not disappoint in any way. If anything, the production's sensitivity to the narrative and attention to detail reveals new aspects of each character, making me appreciate even more, the glory of this stellar musical theater work.
Falsettos runs through November 5, 2023, at the Ritz Theater, 345 13th Avenue NE, Minneapolis MN. For tickets and information, please call 612-339-3303 or visit theaterlatteda.com.
Music & Lyrics: William Finn; Book: William Finn and James Lapine; Director: Meredith McDonough; Music Director: Jason Hansen; Choreographer: Emily Michaels King; Assistant Director: Zach Christensen; Scenic Design: Mina Kinukawa; Costume Design: Rich Hamson; Lighting Design: Grant E. Merges; Sound Design: Katherine Horowitz; Associate Sound Designer: Kevin Springer; Hair and Makeup Design: Emma Gustafson; Props Design: Abbee Warmboe; Dramaturg: Elissa Adams; Production Stage Manager: Shelby Reddig; Assistant Stage Manager: Austin Schoenfelder; Technical Director: Bethany Reinfeld.
Cast: Sasha Andreev (Marvin), Serena Brook (Trina), Sheena Janson Kelley (Charlotte), Sam Mandell (Jason), Sara Masterson (Cordelia), Eric Morris (Mendel), Max Wojtanowicz (Whizzer). Logo