Tara Overfield-Wilkinson’s revival of Falsettos, the Tony award-winning musical about an unconventional New York Jewish family, is a worthy and emotionally powerful production, writes our theatre critic Jo Hemmings.
For a musical so clever and complex, Falsettos has never quite had the success it deserves. It’s taken 27 years to travel from Broadway to London, its songs have not entered the mainstream and its subject matter – a Jewish family, gay men and the AIDS crisis – has undeservedly pigeonholed it. It’s therefore brilliant that this revival exists, allowing a new audience to enjoy this emotionally rich and extraordinary musical treat.
Falsettos tells the story of Marvin (played in this production by Daniel Boys), a neurotic man who has left his wife Trina (Laura Pitt-Pulford) and ten-year-old son Jason for his new male lover Whizzer (Oliver Savile). Then his therapist Mendel (Joel Montague) marries his ex-wife and the scene is set for an exploration of the meaning of love, family and growing up in this unconventional Jewish household. The show premiered with a Tony award-winning production on Broadway in 1992, with William Finn as composer/lyricist and a book by James Lapine. It derives from a series of one-act musicals, also known as the Marvin Trilogy: In Trousers (1979), March of the Falsettos (1982) and Falsettoland (1990). Tara Overfield-Wilkinson’s smart and glossy production is the first time that Falsettos as a whole has been performed in the UK. It’s found its perfect home at The Other Palace theatre in Victoria, a lively venue designed to encourage and support emerging talent, and the newest addition to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s theatre empire.
The small and talented cast clearly relish the challenge of portraying their complex characters and provide a number of stand-out moments. One was Trina’s ‘I’m Breaking Down’, delivered with great energy by Laura Pitt-Pulford. A comedy number, she sprawls on the kitchen table with her wine, lamenting the unusual circumstances of the break-up of her marriage and her growing attraction to her ex-husband’s therapist, yet the moments of emotion come through, particularly towards the end: ‘The only thing that’s breaking up is my family/ But me, I’m breaking down’. Daniel Boys manages to bring out the easily dislikeable Marvin in such a way that when he stands at variance with his son at the end of the first half in ‘Father to Son’, we sympathise entirely. But despite such moments, the overall impression of the first act was of something rather piecemeal, jagged and overlong.
The second act – perhaps due to its origins as a separate piece – has a different tone entirely, more reflective and emotional, culminating in the death of Whizzer. We are introduced to the Lesbian Neighbours From Next Door (Natasha J Barnes and Gemma Knight-Jones), one of whom is a doctor who constantly warns us that Something Bad Is Happening. Heavy-handed and underdeveloped, yes, but luckily that doesn’t detract from the power of the storytelling, as it ramps up to its heartbreaking finale. By this point, we have seen the development of Whizzer’s relationship with Marvin’s son. The part of Jason – a part just as big and demanding as the adult roles – is played by four different boys in this production; I saw the commendable George Kennedy. It is through this child, who is in many ways the most adult of the whole ensemble, that we truly appreciate some of the show’s big themes. He is a boy who can’t bear to have his Bar Mitzvah without his Dad’s partner Whizzer being there, and so they hold it in Whizzer’s hospital room as he lies dying – such is the nature of love and support that this non-nuclear family demonstrates.
The span of time between the varying parts of Falsettos allows it to represent a spectrum of social change: the first act, set in 1979, celebrates the liberation of an opening gay community, while the second act, two years later in 1981, becomes a cultural response to the catastrophe of the AIDS crisis. This subject matter was groundbreaking at the time, and Falsettos undoubtedly opened the way for many more musicals and plays responding to this period, the most successful and well-known of which is probably Rent.
But even though Falsettos is clearly an important milestone of gay theatre, it easily holds its own place alongside the most sophisticated of all musical theatre. The fact that it still seems so remarkably fresh now is a testament to the power and style of the writing. It bears many resemblances to the work of Stephen Sondheim, a frequent collaborator of James Lapine. But one way in which Falsettos is musically notable – and I suspect the real reason it feels so modern – is that it was an early example of a now well-established thread of outrageously candid and self-referential musicals. For example, Falsettos opens with the unexpectedly direct ‘Four Jews in a Room Bitching’. Later on, Jason’s ‘My Father’s A Homo’ has the audience knowingly laughing yet sympathising with him as he worries about his chromosomes: ‘My father’s a homo – my mother’s not thrilled at all’. Then there’s Mendel, Jason’s therapist-turned-stepfather, who counsels by asking ‘Why Don’t You Feel Alright For The Rest of Your Life’ and encourages Jason through their joint song-and-dance routine, ‘Everyone Hates His Parents’. More recent musical theatre successes such as Avenue Q and Book of Mormon are surely descendants of Falsettos’ astute frankness.
So Falsettos is an unusual and worthy production, very deserving of its revival. A little overlong, not quite as fluent as it could be – but extraordinarily powerful nevertheless.
Oh, and the name: Falsettos. To sing in a falsetto voice means a man singing above the break in his voice, outside his natural range. He sounds like a female, and like a child. And so Falsettos is questioning what it means to be a man – and what it means to be an adult. For as the show’s central number, ‘March of the Falsettos’, asks: ‘Who is Man enough to march with March of the Falsettos?’ This could be applied to all of us, regardless of gender, race or sexual orientation. Are we bold enough to be ourselves? Are we as grown up as we think? It’s a great title.
Falsettos is on at The Other Palace Theatre until 23rd November. For more information and to book tickets, click here.
- Feature Image: Elliot Morris as Jason, Oliver Savile as Whizzer, Joel Montague as Mendel, Laura Pitt-Pulford as Trina and Daniel Boys as Marvin in Falsettos, photograph by The Standout Company.
- Daniel Boys as Marvin, Laura Pitt-Pulford as Trina and Oliver Savile as Whizzer in Falsettos by The Standout Company.