Monday, September 19, 2011

I Want it All; Falsettos, Available Light, 09/15/11

After a righteous reading of Annie Baker’s Circle Mirror Transformations, Available Light’s season started in earnest this weekend with Falsettos, the Tony winning 1992 Broadway stitching-together of two earlier Off-Broadway one acts, March of the Falsettos and Falsettoland, with music and lyrics by William Finn and book by James Lapine.

This production will look very familiar to anyone who saw last year’s triumphant take on Merrily We Roll Along including at least five of the six cast members, director John Dranschak, and a similarly minimal evocative set.  But that’s far from a bad thing, all of those elements are a little more at ease in their roles, a little more fine-tuned, a little more layered and mature. 

I had almost no familiarity with this show at all before coming in – I knew of it but I definitely didn’t know it.  It’s a jewel-box, a chamber operetta and each part gets to glimmer darkly. The beautiful part of this is the contrast between the small moments, one voice or two coiling around each other, and those seconds where the whole mosaic reveals itself, the greater patterns that vanish into the ether as soon as they pass.  The structure upends what you think of for musicals, beginning with all voices in concert and slowly unraveling over the course of the act so each act ends with one voice, not a big, dramatic close. 

Falsettos is the story of Marvin, a grim cipher who leaves his wife and child to take up with a man, Whizzer, while still trying to keep everything “normal” in the conception of that he had growing up.  The first act set in 1979 and the second 1981, he seems impacted by the changes underway but not so much concerned until Whizzer gets sick in the second act. 

Scott Johnson as Marvin is an absolute wonder.  It takes a steady hand to make a contemporary audience care about that guy in a play that seems most dated in its dealing with relationships.  We see him hit his wife, be indifferent to his son at best (there’s a sequence at a baseball game one song after he complains about only getting his son on the weekends where all he can do is bitch about how much he hates baseball and “Oh, there’s the guy I used to fuck”), it’s stated that he gave his wife syphilis, and he comes off as a raging hypocrite.  But it's all handled perfectly; Wilson gets exactly the understated tone he needs to shoot for and his singing is the best in the show.  He manages to keep us engaged in this dark star that all the action and other characters swirl around.  It’s as good a performance as I’ve seen all year and his shrug in the opening of the second act as he sings “It’s time to grow up, don’t you think?” is something that will stick with me for a long, long time.

Kim Garrison Hopcraft as Trina has kind of a strange, underwritten role, almost there to show the effects that Marvin has on other people, but she wrings every bit of potency and power 0ut of it.  Her rage and her joy always bubble through even when the character threatens to be as shadowy as Marvin himself.  Even in the more complicated melodies and emotional territory you always feel the character is grounded in something real, something behind everything.  Adam Crawford as Jason, their son, is quite good, nailing his songs, especially on his heart-rending part of “Father and Son”. 

Chistopher Storer as Whizzer has kind of a thankless role, he gets laughs and appears as contrast to Marvin more than a developed person of his own.  But it’s played wonderfully and sung even better, with the strongest sense of timing in the entire piece.  Nick Lingnofski has the showiest, most broadly comic part in the show and he destroys with it, it’s a dash of classic musical theater showmanship in the middle of a dark piece but he reins it in just enough that he doesn’t feel out of place among everything else.  Danielle Mann and Kate Gersing as Marvin’s neighbors/lesbians who own a catering company in the second act are both very fine, I wish they had a little more to do but it’s nice having different, leavening voices thrown into the mix after the hermetic first act.

The only concern I have with the production is it seems to overplay the dated aspects. With a set as minimal as this – one semi-opaque wall dotted with mirrors, picture frames (for the characters to comment during)  and really nicely done nods to Allan McCollum’s “Substitute Paintings”; a few sections of a late ‘70s couch, a kitchen table, a hospital bed, and lights – everything seems to carry a little more importance and everything very specifically grounds the play in the dynamics of its time.  Other than that, everything good in the play is great and everything not as good is moved past quickly, it’s a production that really moves and really gets this audience member focused on the gorgeous construction of the songs and the wit on the lyrics.  Something anyone interested in theatre should be seeing.

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