Marvin’s back and Whizzer’s got him, which should be cause for general rejoicing among William Finn enthusiasts, and indeed, among most people who happen by the Church Street Theater in the next few weeks.
The emotional trajectory traveled by these two enormously selfish characters in Finn’s celebrated “Falsettos” trilogy is one of the musical theater’s most peculiarly affecting. And while Gerald Moshell’s production has plenty of lapses, its principal players are so sharp and well cast that the material tends to shine through even when the staging seems actively calculated to dull its impact.
“Falsettos” is mostly Marvin’s story, though other characters manage to steal the focus occasionally. Played energetically and with a sweetly befuddled expression by Richard Lear, the protagonist is introduced in In Trousers while on the verge of leaving his adoring wife Trina (Claudia Rose Golde) and their precocious son Jason (Patrick McMurphy), to move in with male lover Whizzer (Jack Rowles). March of the Falsettos broadens the canvas a bit, introducing Marvin’s psychiatrist Mendel (Jay Kiman), who falls for Trina as he’s helping her through the divorce, and having Whizzer bond with the family, only to leave Marvin in frustration. Falsettoland then brings everyone together in comparative harmony, just as they must confront the scourge of AIDS.
Somehow Finn keeps these developments musically varied without turning them soap-operatic. It’s customary to describe the composer/lyricist as a Sondheim-in-training, but while there are some similarities in their approaches, that characterization unnecessarily diminishes the singularity of Finn’s gifts. His music can be distinctively, aggressively bouncy, but it also modulates into the sort of haunting, anthemic melody that might once have occurred to Richard Rodgers. Listen to the chord progressions in “I Never Wanted to Love You” or “What Would I Do?,” and you’ll never accept the Sondheim comparisons again.
And while there’s a certain ironic detachment to Finn’s lyrics (“We’ve been married for 10 years/Eight were fine/Six were not”), they also have a brash, contemporary way of incorporating vulgarity into otherwise elevated speech (“You save lives and/I save chicken fat/I can’t fucking deal with that”) that’s very un-Sondheim. Ditto his relaxed discussion of things gay.
Director Moshell (who also plays keyboards in the two-piece piano/percussion band at stage right) seems to have lavished more staging attention on In Trousers than on the other two segments of the story, and since it has by far the weakest material, that works out OK. He has concentrated on making the characters full-bodied and has come up with some tricky stage business with oversize sheets, martini glasses, and a midstage sliding board to keep things visually interesting while the score marks time. But once the tighter, more character-based March of the Falsettos is under way, a lot of that business comes to seem mere busyness. In Falsettoland, he also allows far too many blackouts between scenes.
Still, grant him some nice moments, as when “The Thrill of First Love” (a sung battle between Marvin and Whizzer) modulates from a shoving match to a Kama Sutra-ish sexplay demonstration. Alas, Paul Tines’ choreography is otherwise filled with increasingly gratuitous, unnatural gestures that turn a stageful of fine actors into clumsy musical-comedy automatons. (Cruel hopes are held out by the program note indicating that he choreographed only the first two segments, but Julia Strong, who staged Falsettoland’s dances, appears to have studied at the same school of irrelevant hand-waving.)
Also uninspired is much of the physical production, with set and costume colors coming together so awkwardly you wonder if the designers actually talked to each other. Whizzer’s purple shirt is just enough removed from the floor color to clash, while one of Trina’s dresses is so close to the shade of blue used in the setting’s walls that she essentially disappears. Set designer Karen Sparks Mellon has also come up with cheap, singularly unattractive brass racks and a sink with exposed plumbing to represent the apartment of alleged design-sophisticate Whizzer.
All of which is mere window dressing, of course. The production’s central asset is its performances, and they’re mostly terrific. Lear was under the weather at Sunday’s opening, and was protecting his voice by singing an octave lower than the score in some early stretches. But once it was clear his voice would hold, he loosened up, and by the show’s midpoint his singing was as flat-out impassioned as his acting. He’s an angrier Marvin than one might expect, but when that anger turns to anguish, as it frequently does, he’s very effective. Golde’s witty, vulnerable Trina is a sublime creation, especially when she’s wrapping her vocal cords around a phrase like, “I’m tired of all the men who rule the world.” And if Rowles has a tougher assignment in making cheap, manipulative Whizzer empathetic, he carries it off pretty effortlessly.
Kiman’s insecure shrink is funny and a bit off-putting, which is pretty much how he’s written. And while McMurphy’s smartass bar mitzvah boy, Jason, was initially shaky on opening nightalmost inaudible in spotshe soon gained confidence enough to fit in with his elders. In smaller roles as the catering and doctoring lesbians next door, Amy Kunen and Joanne Borts are full-voiced and funny (though Kunen shouldn’t be obliged to abruptly become a klutz for the sake of a few laughs in a late-in-the-evening production number).
For the record, Washington has previously seen all three Falsettos segments, though not under one roof. Through a bit of scheduling serendipity a few years ago, Source Theatre’s In Trousers was up and running when a touring company brought a tandem production of the other two to the Warner Theater, making it briefly possible for agile theatergoers to catch them all at once (albeit with separate casts and radically different stagings).
But the current mountingbilled as the “world-premiere professional production of William Finn’s entire Falsettos trilogy”brings them together far more conveniently. The longer In Trousers is performed on Tuesdays and Thursdays, while a double bill of the two sequels runs Wednesdays and Fridays. On weekends, they’re scheduled back to back, with a dinner break (a discount deal with area restaurants is dubbed a “theater-dinner” package to distinguish it from its crasser suburban cousins). That’s probably the optimum arrangement.
José Ignacio Cabrujas’ tango-besotted lovefest, El Día Que Me Quieras (The Day You Love Me), centers on a household that, like the rest of 1935 Caracas, is in a tizzy over the arrival of Argentine superstar Carlos Gardel. The crooner’s sex-drenched vocals, physical resemblance to Rudolph Valentino, and cultivated demeanor make him so supreme a Latin Lover that even the Ancizar clan’s more macho occupants seem affected. “My masculinity flickered,” admits one, recounting a chance meeting with the phenom in a hotel lobby, though that’s the full extent of his personal visit to Falsettoland.
The Ancizars are buzzing in anticipation of the evening’s concertall except resident Marxist Pio (Javier Terán), who apparently senses in the singer’s patrician style a challenge to the romance of communismand when Gardel (Hugo Reale) unexpectedly materializes on their terrace, sniffing a fern and rhapsodizing over the simple pleasures of everyday life, the family collectively hyperventilates.
Sensible Aunt Elvira (Nucky Walder) flutters like a butterfly in heat. Flibbertigibbet Matilde (Carmen Parejo) giggles and preens. Ladies’ man Plácido (Jorge Borges)he of the flickering masculinitygets roaring drunk. And if Pio’s fiancée, María Luisa (Vera Soltero), doesn’t actually question her mate’s decision to head off to the Soviet Union to join in the proletarian revolution, she is obviously overwhelmed by Old World style when Gardel helps her center a tablecloth.
Venezuelan playwright Cabrujas keeps the political side of El Día mostly subtextual, and Mario Marcel’s bright, fizzy staging takes its cue from that approach, emphasizing the evening’s farcical aspects whenever possible. Thus, Reale’s Gardel is all surface, hands on forward-thrust hips, shoulders back, headlamp smile shining as brightly as his brilliantined hair and patent-leather shoes. His ego is so enormous it seems almost to take up physical space, but if he’s supremely silly, he’s also strangely calm amid all the fuss he’s causing.
This allows the production at Gunston Theater Twowell mounted by a troupe that grows more assured with every showto mock the impact of celebrity on mere mortals. The staging is slightly out of its depth when attempting some tricky stuff involving a photo montage and lip-syncing of a particularly impassioned Gardel recording. Still, it captures the play’s boulevard comedy comparison of everyday life to a life lived in tuxedos, and puts a comforting satirical emphasis on the everyday. Profound it’s not. But that seemed just fine to the Spanish-speaking audience with which I saw it. (Simultaneous English headset translation is offered on weekends.) CP