Each of William Finn’s two one-act musicals, “March of the Falsettos” and “Falsettoland,” had successful runs Off Broadway. In 1992 they were combined under the umbrella title “Falsettos” and produced on Broadway, where they were lauded and recognized for contributing to the continuing sophistication of the American musical.
Here we are 15 years later and the George Street Playhouse is reminding us just how marvelous is this musical’s savvy melodic language and how easy it is to respond warmly again to the witty libretto (co-authored by James Lapine) that addresses some pretty complicated dramatic issues. It takes us only to the intermission for us to realize how protective and concerned we are becoming about the small group of voraciously unremarkable characters. By the time the show is over, we realize how much we have let ourselves become involved in their lives and their loving.
Director David Saint’s briskly staged, whimsically conceived production returns us to that benign pre-1980s time of recklessly ego-indulged sexual preference, as well as to the beginning of a tremulous, death-harboring new decade.
But if “Falsettos” is no somber message musical, what is it? It is a wildly funny and frenetic fusion of an unorthodox urban family’s life. It is also a musical of lifestyles and life cycles. In fact, style is at the fore in this production artfully designed to suggest life as a black and white maze by Beowulf Boritt. The abstract design of the setting is repeated in the furnishings, all of which are on rollers allowing for speedily executed changes in locale, as humorously engineered by the cast. Ample color is provided courtesy of Amela Baksic’s costume designs
The story of Marvin, a married homosexual; his wife, his son, his psychiatrist, his lover and even the nice lesbians who live down the hall, though it may shock some of you, is so courageously and joyously convoluted as to effect a surprise and a laugh with almost every musical minute. Finn composed a delightfully savvy musical that jet propels each and every one of its idiosyncratic characters through an ingeniously harangue-filled terrain.
While attempting to tread, as well as understand, the egocentric but oddly likable Marvin (Michael Winther), who wants out in order to live with his male lover Whizzer (Colin Hanlon), the winningly neurotic psychiatrist Mendel (Mark Nelson) discovers that he is suddenly falling in love with Marvin’s wife Trina (Liz Larsen). Noticeably disturbed by the sudden change in partners is Marvin and Trina’s son, Jason (Malcolm Morano), an otherwise wise and resilient 11-year-old. Jason finds himself hurtled into analysis himself and into a situation he must face with a hastened maturity.
Just as Act 1 whizzes along its wacky course, a sobering mist envelops Act II. We first hear about the AIDS epidemic from the family friend and lesbian doctor (Anne L. Nathan). As she shares her fears about the disease — “something bad is happening” — with her lover (Sarah Litzsinger), a ditsy caterer at work perfecting nouvelle Bar Mitzvah cuisine, we get the first tremor of things to come. The year is 1981.
Marvin has broken up with Whizzer, Mendel is living with Trina, Jason is preparing for his Bar Mitzvah and an epidemic touches their lives. “Falsettos” has its time of sadness, but this is outweighed by the witty and bright bitching that Finn has set to some really wonderful music.
The cast is uniformly strong. Winther, who made a splash Off-Broadway garnering nominations from both the Drama Desk and Drama League for his performance in “Songs From an Unmade Bed,” is unassumingly effective as the conflicted Marvin, whose ideas of a happily extended family are not immediately shared by the others.
As Trina, Larson deploys a gamut of emotions to considerable effect. Garnering nominations for her roles in “Hairspray” and “The Most Happy Fella” on Broadway, Larson gives Trina her defining moment singing the hilarious angst-driven singspiel “I’m Breaking Down,” in which she literally does just that. Nothing could restrain the audience from cheering its prolonged approval.
The comely Hanlon and vivacious Litzsinger are reunited, if not paired romantically again on the George Street stage after playing the leads in “The Last Five Years,” a few seasons back. The 13-year-old Morano, who has appeared on Broadway in “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” and “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang,” is no less a therapy-seasoned trouper than the three older males. Holding center stage is not an issue for Morano who invests more than just the lyrics into the musically complex arias “My Father’s a Homo,” and “Miracle of Judaism,” and manages to top himself in a solo game of chess in which his speedy moves are timed to keep up with a table he keeps spinning around.
The character of Mendel, the by-love-possessed psychoanalyst is earmarked for neurotic schtick but has a poignant layer that Nelson mines with both broad humor and when necessary subtlety (“A Marriage Proposal”). There is not a false note in this “Falsettos.”
“Falsettos,” through Sunday, May 6, George Street Playhouse, New Brunswick. 732-246-7717 or www.GSPonline.org.