FALSETTOS: Four Jews in a Room Bitching
A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis
Richmond Triangle Players
At: The Robert B Moss Theatre, 1300 Altamont Avenue, RVA 23230
Performances: September 4 – October 5, 2019.
Ticket Prices: $10 (student) – $40 (general admission)
Info: (804) 346-8113 or rtriangle.org
I knew a little – very little – about Falsettos prior to seeing the show. The Richmond Triangle Players website tells us this musical “revolves around the life of a charming, intelligent, neurotic gay man named Marvin, his wife, lover, about-to-be-Bar-Mitzvahed son, their psychiatrist, and the lesbians next door.” That description doesn’t even come close to preparing the viewer for the emotionally immersive theatrical experience that is Falsettos.
Written by William Finn (book and lyrics) and James Lapine (book), Falsettos a two-act musical that runs about 2 hours 30 minutes, with one intermission, was originally two separate one-act plays. The first, March of the Falsettos, was written in 1981. The second act, originally Falsettoland was written nearly a decade later, in 1990. The two have been knit together so seamlessly, with the first act providing introductions to the characters and fleshing out their backstories, that I cannot imagine watching the production as two separate plays.
Debra Clinton directs with a great sense of timing and an innate sense of when to turn from humor to drama. She also choreographed the show with energetic and sometimes comedic movement that is both organic and perfectly suited to actors who are not necessarily dancers. Natan Berenshteyn is the musical director, and three musicians are disappointingly but understandably offstage – unlike most musical productions at Triangle where the musicians are either onstage or at least partially visible. Jonathan Sparks’ sound design included several familiar popular songs from the 1980s and this connected with much of the audience on Friday night.
Kevin Johnson’s set was simple, versatile, and somewhat bland, with a linoleum-patterned painted floor, a trio of crates that served as furniture and props, a truncated bed that cleverly slid out from a wall, and a half-dozen empty picture frames on the walls. They were deliberately hung crooked and at significant moments they were reversed from their plain white sides to colorful sides then back again and in the final scene a seventh frame was added – and it was plumb-line straight.
Sheila Russ’s costumes looked like they came from a 1970s consignment shop, from the Richard Simms style jogging suits worn by characters Trina and Mendel to the pattern of Trina’s Act One shirt. Attention was paid to the most minute detail, such as the way Mendel’s slacks picked up one of the color’s in Trina’s shirt, and Trina’s culottes matched Mendel’s shirt. Michael Jarrett’s lighting captured it all in a golden halo of light – especially in scenes enacted on the extended runway of the stage that ran half the length of the center aisle. If I’ve omitted any elements, please understand that all the technical components worked in complete harmony and I didn’t notice any glitches.
The cast turned in all-around stellar performances – some of which were surprising for actors I’ve seen and become familiar with over the past few years. Matt Shofner, in the principal role of Marvin, developed his character with a certain amount of restraint and internal reserve that runs counter to his usually larger-than-life performances. If there was such a thing as the opposite of melodramatic, then that would be it – natural, realistic, yet intense. The gradual transformation of Marvin from an entitled, obnoxious man with a bad temper in Act One to a man aware of his own shortcomings and making strides to work on them in Act Two was remarkable.
Similarly, Dan Cimo, as Mendel, Marvin’s psychiatrist who ends up marrying Marvin’s ex-wife, showed an entirely new side of his acting chops. When I think of Dan Cimo, the first thing that comes to mind are his unnaturally wide eyes, yet here he seemed to have commanded them to assume, at least temporarily, a new, slightly subdued shape. Cimo was the strong yet sensitive man, the voice of reason and conciliation as he navigated the tenuous territory that comes with a doctor falling in love with his patient’s ex-wife and becoming step-father to his son.
Durron Marquis Tyre also turned in a touching performance as Marvin’s gay lover. His unlikely friendship with Marvin’s son, Jason, developed with remarkable subtlety and gentleness. Tyre also had a show-stopping number with “The Games I Play” near the end of Act One. Near the end of Act Two, he sings “You Gotta Die Sometimes,” and there was audible sniffing and sniveling throughout the audience. Boxes of tissues should be placed under the seats.
Two newcomers not only held their own, but nearly stole the show. Fourteen-year-old Rowan Sharma [this is a correction as I originally reported his age as 12] turned in a stunningly strong and touching performance as Marvin and Trina’s traumatized son – nearly buried under the rubble of his parent’s crumbling marriage after Marvin left Trina to seek his new identity as a gay man, while refusing to let go of his family. Casey Payne, as Trina was responsible for possibly the best and most hilarious musical number of the show with “I’m Breaking Down” in the middle of Act One. There are no spoken lines in Falsettos, every word is sung, and “I’m Breaking Down” perfectly captures the heightened emotion of a woman who finds out that her husband is gay and doesn’t know how to navigate life from there.
Shofner, Cimo, Payne, Tyre, and Sharma are joined, in Act Two, by Kelsey Cordrey and Rachel Marrs, as a lesbian couple. Cordrey, as Dr. Charlotte, enhances the dramatic content with her work on the cutting edge of New York’s AIDS epidemic, while Marrs, as her partner Cordelia, as some of the shows best comic moments as a new-age Kosher caterer whose food tastes terrible! There are few scenes that include all seven cast members, but one of those that does, “The Baseball Game” is a hilarious and touching commentary on family and the social observation that Jewish kids don’t play baseball.
In both plays, in both acts, family is the pivotal element. There is the nuclear family, and then there are the families that we choose – and the families that choose us. Sometimes they intersect and the interactions can ignite sparks or explosions. Family and love and the complexities of love are woven throughout. “Love is Blind.” There is the “Thrill of First Love.” Sometimes, “I Never Wanted to Love You.”
Falsettos is an interesting production that has been brilliantly mounted by a director and cast that seem to be perfectly matched to each other and to the show. I laughed. I cried. I was touched. I experienced theater at it was meant to be.
Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.
Photo Credits: Photos courtesy of Phil Crosby, RTP.
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