Falsettos is a fascinating and edgy piece of theatre for a number of reasons – its snide and witty Jewish humour, its exploration of homosexuality at a time where we weren’t as out and proud as we are now, and right as the HIV AIDs crisis broke and no one knew what was going on. Stage Art have bitten off a huge emotional rollercoaster of a musical, delivering a show that examines love and the crisis of masculinity.
Welcome to Falsettoland, where you will go from giggling and amused by the music and lyrics of William Finn and book by James Lapine and Finn, to moments so tender and heartbreaking that there were certainly some tears on opening night. Set across the 70s and 80s, Falsettos is the culmination of two one act musicals, March of the Falsettos and Falsettoland, set two years apart in one dysfunctional family. Marvin (Don Winsor) leaves his wife Trina (Sarah Shahinian) for lover and friend Whizzer (Sam Ward), but expects things to continue as normal and the way he wants them to.
Performances by the cast are outstanding – Ward’s belt cuts through like butter in ‘The Games I Play’ and the manic energy of Shahinian in ‘I’m Breaking Down’ is a highlight, but Ben Jason-Easton as Jason is a real show stealer, with charm and empathy well beyond his 14 years.
While I don’t buy into Marvin and Whizzer’s relationship in the first act, from it’s slightly at arms length portrayal to it’s lack of chemistry between the characters; (or is the show so well thought out, it takes into account it was the 70s, and men didn’t act like they were dating?), the tenderness and familiarity between Marvin and Whizzer is heartbreaking, with Winsor’s final song leaving the audience feeling a bit misty. Add Nick Simpson-Deeks as psychiatrist Mendel and you have a brilliantly cast, vocally strong set of performers.
The show brutally pulls apart the concept of what is love, what is a family and what is a partner, and puts it all back together again. Marvin wanting the same thing from his wife and his lover, no matter the gender or the personality, is a display of alpha male-ism unlike no other, and the narcissism and the neuroses of each character are brilliantly drawn out and explored throughout the show.
Tyran Parke has done an excellent job pulling every pun, double entendre and gag from the clever words and lyrics of the show and placed them so each one packs a punch. The show feels like it asks relevant questions of today’s values while examining how the family dynamic was just a short 40 odd years ago. While the ending gets a bit lost in the staging, and the messy movement of a hospital screen around the stage, the show has been in good hands under Parke.
The choice to accompany the show only with a grand piano, played by musical director David Butler, adds an intimate layer to the show – while sound effects are added throughout the performance and handheld instruments are played occasionally (and not well), the performance feels stripped back but not hollow, with the harmonies and the voices of these performers filling the space without overpowering.
The set is simple and seems to convey more than the audience realizes, with the focus on how Jason likes chess and the way the cast members move around the board like chess pieces. It seems like there is something going on in terms of the way they move, and adding more pieces throughout the show, but it’s hard to know whether this is the case as sight lines to the floor at Chapel off Chapel are poor. The set by Daniel Harvey is striking black and white with a skyline to match, and inventive with the space, leaving the focus on the actors.
Opening night issues are always part of the independent scene, and I’m sure lighting by Tom Davies will be refined quickly – with the house lights coming up on the audience twice mid show and an often dim stage, the show still felt intimate, but these moments were distracting from the performances. While movement around the stage and set pieces was often clunky, the choreography by Madison Lee added humour and pace to the show.
This show is full of heart and shows that love can tell a million stories, but lovers of this cult show don’t have long to see it – it closes on 11 February at Chapel off Chapel. Tickets and more info – http://www.stageart.com.au/falsettos