William Finn and James Lapine’s “Falsettos” was always an amalgam of two works written two years apart and in different styles.
Never was the division clearer than in Daniel Krane’s production for Princeton Summer Theater, where the first piece, “March of the Falsettos” is a messy, amateurish hodgepodge that bores with its lack of definition and appalls with its gimmickry, while the later piece, “Falsettoland” blossoms in warm, sincere storytelling that exudes understanding and skill.
The difference is stunning. Same cast, same director, same characters (with two additions), and “March of the Falsettos” irritates while “Falsettoland” soars to such a redeeming point, it converts the overall “Falsettos” experience from scatterbrained travesty to laudable wonder.
The composition of the two parts, and a separate approach to them, may be the culprits.
“March of the Falsettos” is a pastiche, written in fast-take sketches, starting with a number that should be — as indicated in the lyrics — “funny funny funny funny” but isn’t because it bursts on the audience like a pop-up doll instead of easing into the idea we’re going to be spending time with a quartet of Jewish male neurotics and the lone woman who relates to them.
“March” tells its story in a series of musical numbers bridged with little dialogue. There’s a narrative, but Finn, as composer and lyricist, does the heavy lifting, and “March” is like the expressionistic half of “Falsettos” while “Falsettoland” is the Dutch genre section, more a full play than an extended performance piece.
Krane and his cast don’t seem to know where to take “March of the Falsettos” or how to put it on stage. He resorts to speed and antics that camouflage rather than enhance what should be a humorous view of people trying to cope civilly as they coalesce into a functional, post-divorce family.
Jeffrey Van Velsor’s endlessly amusing and well-designed set is an accomplice in this.
Van Velsor’s creation, with assist from Rakesh Potluri, is a marvelous evenly spaced collection of square niches containing curious objects, most of them made from Lego pieces in a variety of colors that accentuate a rainbow theme relating to the gay characters and sensibilities in “Falsettos.”
Amid some loopily delightful sculptures of houses, towers, and geometric marvels are a slew of toys and props. Krane plants these for whimsy, but he overplays his hand, and they mire him in production concept.
While there is a logical basis to consider “March of the Falsettos” an emotional gestation period in which adults, and a 10-year-old, struggle to reach their mature selves, Krane takes that idea to an extreme. Out of nowhere, and to eye-rolling horror and hand-wringing despair, characters arrive on toddler’s tricycles or broom-stick horses and carry Barbie dolls, jack-in-the-boxes, or other distractions.
These accoutrements are meant to be witty, clever references to specific times and illustrate how the characters are in a sort of playful, experimental period in their lives. But they come off as clumsy diversions for Krane and company being unable to find the pith, sophistication, and comedy inherent in the “March” portion of “Falsettos.”
The cast appears to be trapped by dealing with props and entertaining with party tricks in lieu of conveying the substance Finn and Lapine provide. A brilliant number, such as a wife abandoned for a gay lover’s “I’m Breaking Down,” is not only damaged but destroyed in the morass.
And what’s with all the phallic business? Only one instance, a young gay guy’s suggestive finger work on the stick end of a hobby horse, has any traction.
Then, as completely as “March” exhausts any patience and good will, the “Falsettoland” half comes on and charms by exuding everything the “March” segment lacked.
All of a sudden, the actors are presenting full-blown characters instead of caricatures. A story — a good, strong story — emerges and builds to become genuinely moving with tears, sniffles, and all. Antics and gimmickry disappear, allowing the stage to be filled with reality. Even the singing gets better. In “March,” Michael Rosas alone, as Marvin, the man who breaks up his home for a gay relationship, reliably holds tunes and gives texture to numbers. In “Falsettoland” the entire cast can do it, even managing tight, tonic harmonies.
The mystery is why the first half eluded Krane and company when the second half falls right in their strike zone.
One answer might be “Falsettoland” has more of a book and couple of central stories to give it a heft. It also has more songs that need their own space and spotlight.
“Falsettoland” is set in 1981, by which time the gay world had been terrified by AIDS. Seeing characters affected by what at the time is new and has no name provides emotional underpinnings “March,” essentially a domestic satire, lacks. The second plot thread is an impending bar mitzvah for Jason (Hannan Chomiczewski). That he is being raised by his mother, Trina (Bridget McNiff); her psychiatrist boyfriend (Justin Ramos), Marvin; his boyfriend, Whizzer (Dylan Blau Edelstein); and the Lesbians next door (Chimari White-Mink and Michelle Navis) creates a comic context and a chance to tie the funny funny… and the serious together.
One wonders why the direct interaction and human contact in “Falsettoland” wasn’t good enough to employ in “March.”
A calmer pace certainly helps. Michelle Navis, as the friend chosen to cater Jason’s bar mitzvah, also seems to have some influence. There’s something soothing about her performance that makes “Falsettoland” seems homey and nurturing.
Musical numbers also land cleaner in “Falsettoland.” Rosas and Edelstein’s performance of “What Would I Do” exemplifies how the entire “Falsettos” should go. The sequence featuring Jason’s bar mitzvah makes up for all the crimes in “March.”
In addition to Van Velsor’s set, Megan Berry’s lighting enhances Krane’s production, as do Jules Peiperl’s costumes.
Falsettos, Princeton Summer Theater, Hamilton Murray Theater, Princeton University. Through June 30. $29.50. 732-997-0205 or www.princetonsummertheater.org.