FALSETTOSMusic & Lyrics by William Finn
Book by William Finn and James Lapine
AT&T Performing Arts Center
Director – James Lapine
Music Supervisor – Vadim Feichtner
Orchestrations - Michael Starobin
Music Conductor – P. Jason Yarcho
Choreographer – Spencer Liff
Recreation of Original Production Choreography – David Bushman
Production Stage manager – Gregory R. Covert
Costume Design – Jennifer Caprio
Hair ad Wigs – Tom Watson
Set – David Rockwell
Lighting – Jeff Croiter
Sound – Don Moses Schreir
Marvin – Max von Essen
Jason – Thatcher Jacobs
Whizzer – Nick Adams
Mendel – Nick Blaemire
Trina - Eden Espinosa
Dr. Charlotte – Bryonha Marie Parham
Cordelia – Audrey Cardwell
Reviewed Performance: 2/12/2019
Reviewed by Mark-Brian Sonna, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
I somehow have managed to live my life with practically no knowledge about this show. I have attended, reviewed, performed, directed, and acted in hundreds of shows in my lifetime, but somehow Falsettos was off my radar. I knew people who had seen it were very much in love with the musical. After attending opening night, I can see why. It is truly a great American musical.
My Editor in Chief/Senior Theater Critic John Garcia was supposed to review this musical, but due to his focus on producing and directing the upcoming COLUMN Awards Gala, he was unable to attend so he asked me to fill in his shoes. Thank you! This was perfect! I’ve been curious as to know why this show has such devotees. I made the point in the few hours before curtain time not read up on anything about Falsettos. Why? It would give me the opportunity to see the show and critique it without any pre-conceived notions since I was unfamiliar with the music and the plot.
I arrive at the theatre. The stage is almost bare. A large grey foam cube that looks like a puzzle box sits in the middle of the stage. A cut out of the New York City skyline serves as the backdrop. Quite minimal. I guessed that the foam “box” would open to reveal set elements, and indeed it does. Cubes, pyramid shapes, trapezoidal formations, etc., make up this cube and with the placement by the performers of such elements as tables, chairs, benches, stoops, and so on create the ever-evolving set. Clever& practical but far from ground breaking. Little did I know that this set would be pretty much be destroyed and a minimalist realistic set would take its place in act 2 with great effect. This transition was startling and encapsulates the startling nature of this show. The show doesn’t seem ground breaking during the first half, it comes across as simply clever. The payoff comes in the second act and it’s a shocker. By the end of the show I was literally trembling in emotion and crying intensely, which I seldom ever do. This musical is a powerhouse on an epic scale.
Falsettos doesn’t have much of a plot. It starts off in 1979 during the height of the sexual revolution. The story in the first act follows the lives of 5 people: A husband, a wife, their kid, their therapist, and the husband’s male lover. It seems that Marvin has fallen in love with Whizzer, his wife Tina who starts seeing Marvin’s therapist Mendel ends up in a relationship with him, and the kid Jason watches and adjusts to the changes in his parent’s lives. Everyone is trying to cope in a civilized way as they all sing about how they feel to each other, sing to themselves as to how they really feel about the situation. Barely a spoken word is to be found in this show. The lyrics and the insights of the characters are hysterically funny at times, and quite sobering at other moments. Since most plot points are narrated through song, what we are left with is these constant musings. Everyone is trying to be hip and understanding because after all, during the late 70s traditional sexual roles and orientations are being more openly explored and everyone is supposed to be OK with these changes in society even though secretly they may disapprove. Act 1 ends when everyone realizes that they can no longer be so “nice” about what is going on and everyone is hurt. I felt the act was a bit too long, for it felt like the characters were at times rehashing ad nauseum. Little did I know that this was simply a device of what was to come.
This device has been employed in films such as The Deer Hunter in which the opening wedding scene seems to go on for too long, and then when it flips into a horrifying violent scene in Vietnam, as a viewer we immediately want to go back to the prior scene because we wish to go back to what seemed like the innocuous life these characters were living. This storyline device is difficult to pull off well, but when done well it creates a net positive impact for the viewer. In Falsettos employs this device, and while it has nothing to do with the Vietnam War, what does happen is just as impactful.
I won’t divulge of what happens in the story line in Act 2 for that is when the setup of Act 1 pays off. Suffice to say it happens in 1981 as the Sexual Revolution comes to an end. The consequences of what transpired in Act 1 takes on full force. Five minutes in I was able to predict how the musical would end. Knowing the ending creates horror and despair in the audience because the characters are ignorant of what is to come. It’s very much a Hitchockian device in which the viewer knows there is a bomb about to go off that is hidden under a table, but the diners are unaware. Once the characters become aware, they are helpless, and how they cope with the disaster resonates with the audience. By the end of the musical the audience was bawling their eyes out as was I. How the characters reacted to the situation was so authentic. There isn’t a false moment. It is devastatingly real.
This musical requires a cast of powerhouse performers. It requires not just well-trained singers for its complex score, but actors that can deliver the myriad of conflicting emotions in a realistic manner.
Max von Essen as Marvin, along with the rest of the cast had the vocal and acting chops to deliver a thunderous performance. His performance of the hauntingly beautiful song “What More Can I say?” encapsulated the complexity of love. His character up to that point is in a perpetual quest for love, and his inability to commit has made him dislikeable to the audience. But in those three minutes, the audience fully understands Marvin, and falls in love with him. Not an easy thing for and actor to do and he does it marvelously. My only quibble with his acting was in his relationship with Whizzer -played by Nick Adams- up to that point. It really is a relationship based on lust, and even though the staging with them sitting together or being shirtless cues the audience to their carnal attraction both Adams and von Essen underplayed this element of lust. What Adams does extremely well is convince us from the moment he’s on stage of the unrequited love Whizzer has for Marvin. His too is a glorious performance that in Act 2 serves to enthrall and eventually rip the heart s out of the audience. Adam’s performance is sublime.
As Mendel, Nick Blaemire frequently serves as comedic relief for the ever-growing tense relationships he finds himself getting pulled in to. The fact that he makes the audience still like him even though he ends up having a relationship with his patient which would cause most therapists to lose their license shows what a capable performer he is. He charms the audience and we can forgive his transgression. His transformation into become a loving step-father is subtlety done. By the end of the play he truly loves Jason as his own and we don’t just witness it, we feel it.
Caught in the middle of the ever-shifting relationships and alliances is Trina. Eden Espinosa inhabits the role completely. I don’t know who else might have played the role, but I can’t imagine anyone else ever playing it. Seldom do I ever see a performance that I would say is perfect. She achieved it.
Thatcher Jacobs as Jason is a powerhouse. In the musical he plays the age of 10 and 12. Even though it’s only a 2-year difference there is a big transformation that happens in children between these ages. He physically and vocally captured this shift. He also serves as the voice of reason and frequently communicates the audience’s thoughts. It’s as if he’s the conscience for all the characters at one point or another. This is perhaps the most complex role in the musical. His performance is effortless. He is a revelation.
In act 2 we are introduced to “the Lesbian couple from next door.” Bryonha Marie Parham as Dr. Charlotte and Audrey Cardwell as Cordelia have a chemistry that is effusive. Though their characters are somewhat underdeveloped (after all, we didn’t have the 1 hour plus to get to know them since they aren’t I Act1), they still come across as real people with the quirks and idiosyncrasies that makes you like them but can at times be cloying. The adage that there are no small roles applies here. They make each moment count without ever upstaging the other performers on stage.
Other things to note in this production:
The costuming was spot on. Frequently period pieces rely on stereotypes from the era, but most people don’t wear the more extreme fashion trends when we think about how people dressed. Jennifer Caprio’s costuming did capture the ordinary dress of 1979 and 1981. It was authentic without calling attention to itself. It reinforced the quirks and personality traits of each character as did Tom Watsons hair and wig design.
The lighting by Jeff Croiter was good. It was moody when need be, harsh when the moments required it, and romantic at the appropriate moments. The only issue was whoever was operating the follow spots: they needed more rehearsal.
The orchestral requirements for this show are small. The volume of the instruments was well balanced with the voices. My only complaint is that at times there lacked crispness. This may be in due part that the tour has just started. With more performances under their belt the band hopefully will get tighter.
James Lapine who directed this production should be commended. Not only is he the co-author, but he imbues this production with such sensitivity and coaxes performances from his actors that are simply stellar. His staging is simple when need be, and thunderously dramatic at other times. The minimalist yet effective choreography by Spencer Liff that Lepine incorporates into the show is done seamlessly. This is directing at a master level.
Falsettos is seldom performed in regional theatres because it requires singing actors with a phenomenal vocal range, including a child actor with a set of singing pipes most children don’t have. This tour is in Dallas just for this week. This is a must see musical. I guarantee you will laugh, cry, and fall in love with these characters. And though it really doesn’t have any songs that are earworms, the score, especially in Act 2, is one of the best your ears will hear. Falsettos is an experience that is unforgettable.
AT & T Performing Arts Centers Broadway Series at the Winspear Opera House
2403 Flora Street, Dallas, TX 75201
Now through February 17, 2019
Performances are Thursday at 7:30, Friday at 8 PM, Saturday at 2:00 and 8:00 PM, and Sunday at 1:30 and 7 PM. Tickets $25 - $104. For information and tickets visit www.attpac.org or call 214.880.0202.