Amazing how edgy and new an old-hat musical can seem these days. At intermission during opening night of William Finn and James Lapine’s Falsettos, which continues its run at Knight Theater through this Sunday, I ran into a collegial culture vulture in the lobby who asked, “Do you think Charlotte is ready for this?” Not very different from the local director who said, “Charlotte is a hard market for this kind of thing, you know?”
Except that director was Steve Umberger, talking about Falsettos a few weeks before Charlotte Rep first presented it at Booth Playhouse in the autumn of 1993 – a year after Finn and Lapine won Tony Awards for their work. A then-strong alternative newsweekly named Creative Loafing sponsored that production, I recall, and Queen City Theatre Company revived the musical briefly in a concert edition at Duke Energy Theater in 2012.
So not withstanding some grumbling inside Knight Theater and a few walkouts, Charlotte has been ready for Falsettos for over 25 years.
Upscaled from the Duke and the Booth, the current touring version directed by Lapine is glitzier and brasher than previous productions staged here, overmiked and maybe a little overacted. What started out as “Four Jews in a Room Bitching” repeatedly became one Broadway diva on a stage belting.
While Finn and Lapine never envisioned the new frontiers beyond the boundaries of the binary sexual template, they tilted toward an inclusiveness that was fresh and daring. When we reach the bedside bar mitzvah scene, a climax that brought me to tears even though I knew it was coming, the six adults celebrating Jason’s Jewish coming of age are neatly divided into homosexual, heterosexual and lesbian couples.
Back at Booth Playhouse in 1993, this stage tableau was Charlotte’s foretaste of what was heading our way with Tony Kushner’s Millennium Approaches, still in its first run on Broadway and already taking us to a new chapter in America’s ongoing culture wars — a first step toward the diversity we now take for granted on TV sitcoms a quarter of a century later.
Of course, a certain amount of crafty contrivance helps in forging the neat division of sexual orientations in Falsettos. Even before the four Jews dance in from the wings, taking their place in front of a Rubik’s cube-like construct that will become the set, Marvin has deconstructed his marriage — and come out of the closet — to move in with Whizzer, a debonair cruiser with a designer wardrobe. Trina, Jason’s mom, isn’t taking Marvin’s exit or his sexual realignment very well. Angry? Jealous? Overwhelmed? Yes.
The family shrink, Mendel, is there to help Trina pick up the pieces — which jibes well with the psychiatrist’s own intentions of picking up Trina. So the remainder of the first act, originally presented separately Off-Broadway as The March of the Falsettos in 1979, is an orgy of jealousies, self-doubts and couples conflicts. Marvin, not at all a model of maturity, is uncomfortable with Trina’s budding relationship with Mendel and beginning to wonder whether he truly loves Whizzer.
Meanwhile Mendel is weighing the freedom and loneliness of continued bachelorhood against the intimacy and responsibilities of matrimony and step-fatherhood. Whizzer? Doesn’t think he loves his man, although Marvin is an excellent provider, and isn’t at all sure about this monogamy deal. No, overmiking doesn’t help all this stressing, bickering and childishness.
“Bitch, bitch, funny, funny,” the four Jews sing at the beginning, and Act I is every bit of that — but not especially Jewish after that opening song. Then comes Falsettoland, which is what the second act was called when it premiered separately Off-Broadway in 1990. In the 11-year interval between these two one-acts, Finn and Lapine advanced the action a mere two years, from 1979 to 1981, which you’ll see referenced in an effigy of Nancy Reagan if you haven’t already scrutinized your playbill.
Now it’s time for Jason to study for his bar mitzvah, for Marvin and Trina to bicker over whom to invite to the reception — and to decide the utmost practicality, the caterer! Just so happens that one of the two lesbians who have newly moved in next door, Cordelia, is a caterer. The other, Charlotte, is a doctor of internal medicine, which comes in very handy when there’s another new arrival in the neighborhood: AIDS.
Finn and Lapine vividly recapture the early days of the fearful epidemic when Dr. Charlotte leads a quartet in singing “Something Bad Is Happening” — before the disease even had a name. Before evangelicals had the audacity to declare AIDS a curse from God aimed at homosexuals. Compared to the Rep cast of ’93 who all lived through those days, the touring cast now at Knight Theater comes in with a disadvantage, compounded by the fact that so many in the audience weren’t even born during those turbulent times — and hadn’t had the luxury of studying up before Falsettos turned from “funny, funny” to deadly serious.
Audio had been dialed down a little from the sound booth when we crossed over to Falsettoland, so I felt more comfortable with the Knight Theater cast after intermission when the frenetic action calmed down and our adults became more adult and self-aware, with the sort of insight Sondheim brings to the post-fairytale of married life. Max Von Essen improved the most in the transition as Marvin. Yes, it’s true that Marvin is a self-centered jerk when he emerges from the closet, and we should, on balance, despise him. But a wisp of nebbishy Woody Allen bewilderment and insecurity would have brought so much to Marvin’s character and Finn’s lyrics. When Marvin begins to get a grip and reconciles with Whizzer, it was very gratifying to see Von Essen find him.
Maybe Nick Adams’ somewhat laid-back approach to Whizzer had Von Essen believing that he was the stud in this relationship. I never lost sight of Adams’ understated self-confidence and vanity, but Whizzer has the only Broadway-sized ego in this gallery. Adams seemed to be a comedy bombshell kept in check, and I found it disappointing that Lapine in his direction let someone else loose. Yet when his moment came to sing “You Gotta Die Sometime,” Adams rose to the drama.
On the other hand, Von Essen may have judged that the Woody Allen bewilderment domain had been sufficiently occupied by Nick Blaemire as Mendel, lovable no matter how agnostic and indecisive the psychiatrist may be. Eden Espinoza certainly makes Trina a formidable leap for Mendel from bachelorhood and therapeutic detachment. We can also admit that, in adding her showpiece, “I’m Breaking Down,” to the songs they had already written for March of the Falsettos and Falsettoland, Finn and Lapine had always intended to enhance the Broadway heft of their score.
Trouble is, Espinoza spreads its one Mama Rose dramatic moment over the whole song, which should play more like a frazzled Lucille Ball. As with Von Essen, I started liking Espinoza more after intermission as she relaxed a little watching Jason’s misadventures in baseball — and she hit stride in her big second act song, “Holding to the Ground,” which was more in her wheelhouse.
Although he splits the role with Thatcher Jacobs in alternating performances, it’s obvious that Jonah Mussolino as Jason has all the grit and talent necessary to hold up his end of the quartets that begin each act. Even if his bar mitzvah Hebrew was garbled and unrecognizable, it was gratifying to see Mussolino, so integral to this show, finally get his solo spots after intermission, especially in his climactic “Another Miracle in Judaism.”
Bryonia Marie Parham and Audrey Cardwell balance each other nicely as the lesbians next door, Cardwell slightly ditzy and hugely self-doubting as the caterer and Parham dignified, unsettled, and empathetic as Dr. Charlotte amid a shifting medical landscape that shook people’s confidence everywhere. They really do become a part of Jason’s extended family, Doc Charlotte with her bedside manner, Cordelia with her gefilte fish.
David Rockwell’s set design becomes slicker and more metropolitan between acts, but I loved how Lapine had his company join in reassembling the original Rubik’s cube. Then with lighting designer Jeff Croiter artfully dimming the closing scene, a single piece was removed to become a touching marker. A little more of that artful simplicity — and a little less loudness and glitz — would bring this Falsettos closer to perfection. At its heart, it’s a show that hasn’t aged one day since 1993.