Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley
On the day another Supreme Court ruling threatened the liberties of LGBTQ citizens and in a time when conservative state legislatures are passing anti-LGBTQ laws by the dozens, The Pear's opening of Falsettos could hardly be timelier. Despite a number of production issues, the cast of seven powerfully conveys the musical's core messages of life and love among family and friends and among new lovers and ex-lovers–whether gay or straight, living or dying. Their intertwined, rollercoaster lives of being happy, angry, and sad vividly illustrate the complicated ups and downs of growing up, of being in relationship, and of finally feeling comfortable figuring out what it means to be human.
Falsettos is an all-musical journey through three years of the lives of Marvin, his ex-wife Trina, their ten-year-old son Jason, Marvin's lover Whizzer, and his psychiatrist Mendel. Neighbors and friends, Dr. Charlotte and her life partner Cordelia, eventually round out the configuration, resulting in many changing patterns of sometimes intersecting and sometimes non-intersecting relationships. Theirs is a story that has pain, conflict, regret, and inevitable sorrow threaded throughout. It also has loads of humor, lots of genuine caring, and uplifting expressions of love that cannot help but touch hearts of those watching. In other words, the story is about life itself as most of us experience it in any of our own three-year segments.
The other thread in this particular slice of these seven lives is being Jewish, a source of a lot of the humor and a key element of especially the plot in Act Two. In fact, the musical begins with an introduction of the kind of bickering we will see cropping up time and again throughout the musical, as the four males (with Trina chiming in from the sidelines) sing "Four Jews in a Room Bitching," all dressed as if they were part of the original Exodus and taking time to tell a part of that story as the Red Sea suddenly appears and splits before our eyes.
Even with the opening number's strong, resounding voices, the first of several production problems becomes evident. A talented band of four under the direction of Val Zvinyatskovsky plays on a balcony at one end of the rectangular theatre space; its music too often drowns out the lyrics of those singing–something especially true when only one person is singing. Time and again throughout the evening, it feels like there is a tug of war going on between band and singers, with the band usually winning. To add to the woes, some technical issues on opening night caused a repeated rumbling to occur from the electrical equipment, too often ruining the emotional effect of a well-intentioned singer. Unfortunately, there were also repeated problems with the miking system. Key solos (like "Trina's Song" by Trina and "You Gotta Die Sometime" by Whizzer) were all but lost when a non-miked soloist had no way of singing above the too-loud band.
Even if the sound issues can be addressed (and hopefully they will be), director Janie Scott's decisions about the arrangement of audience in relation to the staging and then especially how actors are blocked lead to many important moments being missed by half the audience. In the Pear's intimate arena, there is (based on past productions) a lot of flexibility in how to configure the space. For this production, the audience is sitting stadium style, with the action occurring close-hand along a long, rectangular space between two sets of seats. Unfortunately, cast members often sit and stand facing only one half or the other of the audience. While at times we on one half get to see the important, emotional components of an actor's facial and body reactions, the other half only sees the back of the head. Important-to-the-story solos/duets are sung in this manner, making the miking and music imbalance issues even greater.
Despite these quite serious issues, the cast overall delivers. The central character, Marvin, is a man who in many ways is hard to like very much. His story is that of a man who is leaving his life for a gay lover, but who will spend much of the two-hour show still wanting ex-wife, who is above all loyal to him. He is often like a spoiled child, wanting to be the center of everyone's love and attention while he finds it difficult to reciprocate without making accusations, pouting off by himself in a corner or erupting into a full-on shouting match with almost any of the others around him. Tyler Savin captures well the approach/avoidance nature of Marvin's struggles with everyone from his ex to his lover, and even to his son, singing with a voice that can solidly convey frustration, anger, regret, sadness, and finally, genuine love. His songs become milestones on his journey to come to grips with his decision to leave Trina, with his struggles to be a good father to Jason, and his difficulty to fully and unconditionally love Whizzer.
The relationship between Marvin and Whizzer, as described in a combative duet entitled "Thrill of First Love," is one of hot, sensual passion one moment and passionate arguing and fighting the next. Theirs is much like a father/teenage-son pattern of ongoing bickering, with Marvin the provider and the demander and Whizzer the one who never can meet the high standards his lover has for him.
Brad Satterwhite establishes the easygoing, less volatile Whizzer as amiable and a guy who knows himself well, accepting his own faults more easily than Marvin does his own. With an attractive, strong, nuanced, and beautifully melodious voice, his Whizzer is someone we naturally want to root for, even when we are not sure we want to do the same for Marvin.
Whizzer's biggest fan is Jason, a boy who has difficulty relating to the father who left his mother but who finds in his father's lover someone he can talk to and feel genuinely heard. Fourth-grader Russell Nakagawa is an endearing Jason, bringing boyish vocals and a giant personality to the small kid who goes from ten to thirteen in the course of the evening. With an all-boy demeanor, he shrugs off with little-to-no reactions his parent's many nagging worries and questions. Yet it often seems as if his Jason is the only adult in the room–especially in the heat of planning his bar mitzvah. In many ways, the bar mitzvah seems to him to be mostly for his parents. Russell's Jason is just a good kid trying his best to navigate through the drama of his parents' lives and the mysterious, sudden sickness of his pal, Whizzer.
Unlike her son, Trina does not find Whizzer a person she wants to like, much less love. Trina is in the beginning totally pissed about the cards she has been dealt by Marvin and seeks help from Marvin's psychiatrist, Mendel. Mendel uses his sessions with her to begin wooing her and uses his sessions with Marvin to question his ex-wife's love of wearing negligee and of her frequency of sleeping naked. The dimpled, often-awkward, always lovable Kyle Herrera is outstanding as Mendel. He is frequently like an overgrown boy himself, especially as he navigates courting his client's ex, who is now also his client. He sings with gusto and freshness of spirit, and at times lets loose with exuberance that even shows Jason that his new step-father is a fun guy to have around (as seen in their jumping, shaking, twisting in "Everyone Hates His Parents").
Even after finding a new husband, Trina–like Marvin–has trouble letting go of their past and her lingering mixture of feelings alternating between love and hate. Jan Wheatonfox ably conveys in well-sung, often big-voiced vocals Trina's complicated conglomeration of feelings and reactions as a woman wracked with questions about why she once loved and married a man who turned out to be gay and a cheat, why she now feels inadequate to help her own son deal with feelings about his parents breaking up, and why she is suddenly in love with a man who should not have come on to her as her psychiatrist.
Rounding out the cast in the second act are the new neighbors and lesbian couple, Angie Alvarez as Charlotte–soon to be Whizzer's doctor–and Leah Kennedy as Cordelia, an aspiring but not-yet-successful caterer. Particularly impressive is Angie Alvarez whose rich, mighty voice shakes at the core with its foreboding "Something Bad Is Happening" as her Dr. Charlotte knows that there is a spreading disease "so bad that words have lost their meaning," where "rumors fly and tales abound, stories echo underground."
In the end, these seven cast members at The Pear Theatre rise above troubling production issues and remind us that this thirty-year-old musical is just as relevant today, if not more so, than when it premiered. As threatening questions are being raised in this country and all across the globe of what defines a real "family" and who legitimately and legally gets to love whom, Falsettos sings clearly that love is love is love if we just give ourselves time and permission to figure it all out.
Falsettos runs through July 23, 2023, at The Pear Theatre, 1110 La Avenida Avenue, Suite A, Mountain View CA. For tickets and information, please visit www.thepear.org.