Thursday, September 15, 2011

Falsettos: An Auspicious Debut for Third Street Theatre

Third Street Theatre's cast of Falsettos
Photos: Yenka Honig

The first American version of Webster’s Dictionary written in 1828 defined the word “family” as “the collective body of persons who live in one house and under one head or manager; a household, including parents, children and servants, and as the case may be, lodgers or boarders.” Over time the word has evolved, as the current edition of Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary proves, with family now ranging from a similar description of the original, to “a group of people united by certain convictions or a common affiliation.”

For Marvin, the neurotic central character in William Finn and James Lapine’s Falsettos, family is complicated, and his obsession with making family work creates endless opportunities for humor and pain within the achingly human story.

As he tells the audience at the beginning of the show, he’s divorced his wife, who is now dating his psychiatrist, left his child, and run off with a new boyfriend…but he still wants to have a tight-knit family. Can you say conflict? Marvin’s got his work cut out for him. It’s going to require immense amounts of patience, understanding, and a whole lot of therapy to help him get over his guilt while creating a new kind of family, but that’s the trick of it. As life throws him one curve after another, he learns that no matter what you call it, family endures, love really does hold us together, and growing up is a necessary step in becoming a father.

The Tony Award-winning musical is made up of two one-acts, March of the Falsettos set in 1979, and Falsettoland set two years later in 1981, and is actually parts two and three of a trio of musicals that began with the earlier installment In Trousers. It is currently the freshman outing of the Third Street Theatre in West Hollywood and I am thrilled to say it is a most enjoyable production.

You can’t go wrong with Finn’s music & lyrics, which alternate between laugh-out-loud songs like “Four Jews in a Room Bitching,” and “The Baseball Game” (so funny I won’t spoil the lyrics here), to beautiful lyrical ballads like “What More Can I Say?” If you’ve seen The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, one of his later musicals, you know that Finn has a way of articulating a person’s thoughts that provide a payoff you often don’t see coming with lyrics that make you laugh out loud and think, “did he really just say that?” And that’s priceless.

Director Richard Israel mines the material for all its worth and creates a vivid, energetic, powerfully cathartic commentary on some very important issues. His dynamic cast delivers solid performances all the way down the line, from Jesse Einstein as the neurotic, troubled Marvin to Richard Hellstern, who plays his lover, Whizzer. Hellstern has a beautiful voice and a way with a melodic line that makes you wish he would just keep singing. The two have quite an onstage connection and watching them wind their way through a touching romance via dramatic detours of dysfunction is endlessly entertaining.

Richard Hellstern and Jesse Einstein

One of the most compelling turns in the story occurs when Whizzer collapses in Act II while playing racquetball with Marvin; a scene made all the more poignant because it hearkens back to an earlier game that showed Whizzer in impeccable physical shape. It is a reflection of the times when the AIDS epidemic of the 70’s and 80’s was beginning to come out of the shadows and make the news on a daily basis. People were dying every day and even the doctors felt helpless to understand what was happening. For Marvin, it becomes the catalyst to grow up and step out of the fantasy life of falsettoland.

Lani Shipman is lovely and real as Marvin’s wife Trina. Blindsided by her husband’s confession she seeks answers from Mendel (Chip Phillips), a quirky therapist who dispenses insight with a smile but is actually the most wacko person in the bunch. Shipman’s matter-of-fact treatment of her hysterical breakdown song highlights her comedic timing par excellence and Phillips has so much fun with everything he does that you will too. And he does it with great pipes.

Major Curda plays Trina and Marvin’s ten-year-old son Jason, caught in the middle of the mess his father has created. His very funny dilemmas include worrying whether he will turn out to be “homo” like his father, agonizing over which girl to ask to his bar mitzvah, and trying to figure out how to hit that baseball – and he’s equally as wonderful in the serious moments. Add to the mix a couple of lesbians next door; Kim Reed as Dr. Charlotte and Wendy Rosoff as Cordelia, who designs and sings about her “nouvelle bar mitzvah cuisine,” and the outstanding cast is complete.

Musical direction on a sung-through show is one heck of a job and Gregory Nabours brings a level of musicality to Falsettos that keenly enhances its inherent riches. He also leads the terrific trio of musicians on keyboards. Joining him are Brian Cannady on percussion and Brian Morales on reeds.

John Todd adds plenty of bright, clever and twisted choreography that is also best left a surprise so as not to spoil any of the humor. Suffice it to say that the characters may tell the story in song, but they deliver the subtext through dance – and it is a delight. The beautiful lighting design is by Lisa Katz, with Kurt Boetcher providing set design, Jessica Olson costume design and Ric Perez-Selsky sound design.

Falsettos is an auspicious debut for Third Street Theatre eloquently examining themes as timely today as thirty years ago. It reminds us that it is the people we count as family that have the most impact on our lives. We make mistakes. We do the wrong things. And still, if we are lucky, they are there to help see us through the growing pains of life, plying the wounds with large doses of humor and generous amounts of love. In the end that adds up to a life well-lived, and in this case, a musical well done.

Falsettos runs through October 16 at Third Street Theatre, 8115 West 3rd Street, Los Angeles, 90048. Click Here for tickets and more information. 

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