Reviewed by George Basler
Here is a piece of advice: If you go to see S.R.O. Productions III’s presentation of Falsettos, be sure to bring some Kleenex tissues.
The musical, which opened a two-weekend run Nov. 1 at the Schorr Family Firehouse Stage in Johnson City, begins as a satire of a group of self-absorbed upper middle-class denizens of New York City, but it ends with a wrenching tragedy.
That makes Falsettos a compelling emotional journey, and the seven S.R.O. cast members do it full justice. They don’t have an easy job. The musical by composer-lyricist William Finn and co-writer James Lapine is entirely sung, meaning the performers must be talented singers as well as actors. The S.R.O. performers meet both criteria at a very high level, and director Scott Fisher keeps the action flowing fluidly from one moment to the next.
Falsettos, which premiered in 1992, is a combination of two earlier one-act musicals by Finn and Lapine. It had a successful Broadway run in its initial engagement, winning Tony Awards for Best Book of a Musical and Best Original Score. A 2016 revival, followed by a national tour, was also successful.
While the musical’s themes of love and forgiveness are timeless, the action is very much anchored in a specific time, namely 1979 and 1981 at the dawn of the AIDS epidemic. At the center of the story is Marvin (Brendan Curtin), a gay Jewish man (the Jewish identity of the main characters is an important part of the plot), who leaves his wife, Trina (Annie Graham), to live with a man, Whizzer (Mickey Woyshner).
Trina, in turn, falls in love with — and marries — Marvin’s psychiatrist (Eric Bill), prompting bouts of angry jealousy from Marvin. Meanwhile, their 12-year-old son, Jason (Connor Nardocci), is going through his own identity crises. In the second act, a lesbian couple (Mari Lewis and Lauren Kovacic) move next door and become important parts of the action.
One of Falsettos strong points is Finn’s lyrics, which are both funny and deeply soulful, and never resort to clichés. A second strong point is how effectively Finn and Lapine present their nuanced characters. They’re flawed, but sympathetic; overbearing, but filled with self-doubt; exasperating at times, but capable of finding their best selves when tragedy hits in the second act.
Much of Act I, which takes place in 1979, has a comic tone as it focuses on the characters’ various neuroses. The first song, “Four Jews in a Room Bitching,” is a good indication of this. It’s entertaining, but Falsettos wouldn’t be particularly memorable if it was just a send-up of middle-class angst.
But it’s much more than that.
The second act, set in 1981, takes the musical to another level. It still has its funny moments. A prime example is the song, “The Baseball Game,” which laments the inability of Jews to play baseball (Sandy Koufax and Hank Greenberg aside). It’s enthusiastically played by the S.R.O. cast.
But increasingly the act takes on an elegiac tone as the AIDS epidemic takes hold. The characters grow and change. Finn’s lyrics take on a deeper and richer tone. In the end, the Falsettos becomes a musical that is both funny and blessed with real emotional heft. The same can be said of the masterful S.R.O. production.
The cast is strong from top to bottom. Curtin does a first-rate job as Marvin, who begins the musical as something of a self-absorbed jerk but becomes a compassionate caregiver to his doomed lover, as well as a caring, if somewhat befuddled, father. Woyshner is equally good as Whizzer, who morphs from a shallow smart aleck to a stoic and dignified patient as AIDS ravishes his body.
In another key role, Bill is solidly humorous as a psychiatrist who has the same hang-ups and foibles as his patients but remain endearing all the same. Lewis and Kovacic do splendid jobs as the lesbian couple. One of the best songs in the show is “Unlikely Lovers” in which their two characters join Marvin and Whizzer in affirming the importance of love in all forms, especially when facing bleak circumstances.
Nardocci, a freshman at SUNY Broome, is a real find. He does a remarkable job in portraying all the layers of the teenage Jason from the awkwardness and insecurity that goes with adolescence to the character’s growing maturity.
Last, but not least, Graham brings a first-rate singing voice and broadly comic skills to the role of the Tina, the frazzled wife. She is just plain delightful in the plum role. Especially memorable was her performance of “Breaking Down,” in which her character has an emotional meltdown while preparing bananas for dessert. It’s a joyous illustration of comic timing.
Solid musical accompaniment is provided by Carol Baker, Kevin Bill, Micah Neiss and Canaan Harris, who is the show’s music director.
The term “family values” has become a loaded term in today’s polarized political and cultural environment. But, at its core. that’s what Falsettos is all about. While the characters can be considered unconventional, they are an extended family tied together by the sometimes messy, but deep, love for each other.
That’s an uplifting message, and Falsettos is a fine, fine show.
IF YOU GO: Falsettos will be performed 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday (Nov. 8 and 9) and 2 p.m. Sunday (Nov. 10) at the Schorr Family Firehouse Stage, 46-48 Willow St., Johnson City. Tickets are $25 ($23 for students and senior citizens). For more information, visit sroproductionsonline.com.