KPBS AIRDATE: April 6, 1993
(SOUND: “Four Jews in a Room Bitching” from “Falsettos”)
The opening number of “Falsettos” says it all about the first act — four Jews in a room bitching…. bitch, bitch, bitch, bitch, funny, funny, funny funny… all the time. Well, not all the time. Because things get pretty maudlin and serious in the second act. Which is a little disappointing, even though a lot of us already knew the plot and the addition of AIDS and everything. But it’s all been said before, though not so musically.
Wait a minute, let me back up. “Falsettos” is really a musical combo-trilogy by William Finn, with book by Finn and sometime Sondheim collaborator James Lapine, who also directs. So here we have three parts of a story about neurotic Marvin, a wannabe mensch who leaves his wife and son for a handsome guy, but he still wants it all, a tight-knit family and everyone living happily ever after. By the end of act two, he gets the former but not the latter.
I can’t say enough about the first act, which is just Marvin, his ex-wife, his ex-shrink who becomes his wife’s current husband, his son Jason and his lover, Whizzer. Everyone, as promised, is very neurotic. And very funny. And hurt and angry. There’s a biting edge in almost every song (there’s virtually no dialogue here at all), and the laughs come easily. There’s a terrific show-stopper by Trina, a sad-but-funny, post-husband-running-off-with-a-man breakdown song called “I’m Breaking Down.”
In act two, we’ve moved from 1979 to 1981, and from “March of the Falsettos” to “Falsettoland.” Jason is about to have his Bar Mitzvah, and we meet the two lesbians next door, not a very thrilling addition in terms of character or plot, although one of the lesbians happens to be a doctor, and she gets to allude to AIDS obliquely in the song, “Something Bad is Happening.” We get one very cute humorous number — about “watching Jewish boys who cannot play baseball, play baseball” — and the rest is love songs, ballads and mawkishness.
No matter; “Falsettos” is high energy, engaging and extremely well done. The cast of this national touring company is terrific. All the guys are great — Gregg Edelman as the confused and reformed Marvin, Peter Reardon as the handsome Whizzer, Adam Heller as Mendel the psychiatrist, who’s sometimes both funny and poignant and, on opening night, stand-in Jonathan Kaplan, a sixth grader from L.A. Carolee Carmello falls apart brilliantly, though she’s a weaker character in general. Likewise the other two women, who just seem to be there to round out the sexual equality statistics.
The set is simple, stylized and highly effective, as is James Lapine’s staging. The three behind-the-scrim musicians play their hearts out, and really keep things hopping. You may not get any new insights, but this piece will get broad mainstream exposure, and may spread the word about Jews and gays and families and lesbians and living with AIDS and coming together.
Go see it. The music and lyrics are dynamic, clever, unpredictable — and even hummable. It’s a marker of the times, a musical that should be seen and heard and recommended.
I’m Pat Launer, for KPBS radio.
©1993 Patté Productions Inc.