‘ Falsettos” is a nearly hidden gem at Cal Poly, an ambitious, provocative production that deserves a much wider audience than the campus crowd.
Director Virginia Anderson seems to like challenges, and she succeeds big time with this one. The musical, an opera, really, is all sung, and it’s a difficult feat, well done by the fine actor-singers she has cast. They manage to sing, speak, act and emote in a sometimes humorous, more often poignant and ultimately tragic story.
The subject matter, too, is challenging. When “Falsettos,” by William Finn and James Lapine, won Tony awards for best book and best musical score in 1992, the play about homosexuality and AIDS was edgy, to say the least. The “shock” element has faded over the years, and it now comes across as a moving fable about love and family.
This is not a traditional Jewish family. Marvin has left his wife, Trina, and 11-year old son, Jason, for Whizzer, a male lover. Marvin’s psychiatrist, Mendel, falls in love with Trina as she consults him in the wake of the breakup of her marriage.
Jason is bewildered by the adults’ actions and, in the second act, faced with his looming bar mitzvah, confused about his own role in the new family makeup. A lesbian couple befriends the extended family, and then the AIDS epidemic enters the scene.
It sounds like a melodramatic soap opera, but the creators’ decision to tell the story with music was a brilliant one. By singing the dialogue and action, and adding humor and self-deprecation, they give the audience the opportunity to understand the characters gradually and see various sides of them.
The opening song, “Four Jews in a Room Bitching,” introduces the play with a comic tone. As the story unfolds, each character has defining songs. Marvin, played with great emotion by Jack Adams, sings “I Want It All.” He wants his son, his wife in the family context, and his gay lover. Trina, played with high energy by Jaide Whitman, is the pawn in the men’s game, and she sings wryly about “The Happy Men Who Rule the World,” as images of the pope, the president and the men around her are projected on the wall. Whizzer, who teases and frustrates Marvin, sings “These Are the Games I Play.” He is played and sung well by CJ Gormley, as Whizzer becomes a sympathetic character. Jeff Salsbury is good as Mendel, the smitten psychiatrist, who sings that “nothing can love you like I do” (not even a horse or a zebra). Natalia Berryman and Kathleen O’Brien are good as the lesbians next door.
Although the drama of the adults fuels the action, young Jason, played with winsome charm by 11-year-old Westen Meyer, is really the central character. Max Sopkin, in a nonspeaking part, begins the play by opening a photo album, and we realize that he is the adult Jason, looking back on the events that unfold. Young Jason is bewildered by the antics of the adults in his life, but he sees them with the clarity of youth, seemingly more insightful than they are. He asks, “Just because you failed as parents, you want me to see a psychiatrist?”
He is confused by his father’s behavior, and also worried about what it might mean for his own impending sexuality. But Jason is also the glue that holds everyone together to make some sort of a family support group for him. Young Meyer’s acting is touching, especially as he makes a bargain with God, and he is delightful as he sings and dances in the ensemble numbers.
The live eight-piece orchestra is excellent as it accompanies the nonstop singing. All of the voices are excellent, and the songs are challenging, fast, often sung in parts and carefully synchronized. Enunciation is crisp and crucial because that’s how the audience knows what’s going on. Sometimes the rhyming lyrics are funny, as rhyming “annoyed” with “Freud” or “genetic” with “copasetic.” Musical direction is by Paula Womble and Morgan Hurd. Choreography is by McKenna Friend and Jillian Voss.
The set features a wall covered with large, poster-like images, some of which are projected and change with the scenes and the times. Tim Dugan is designer, using artistry by Teresa Shea of Los Angeles. Max Brown designed the projections.
“Falsettos” is a powerful adult play, entertaining but moving as it asks and attempts to answer questions about love, however it is felt and expressed.