By Sharon Eberson
For those of us who lived through “The AIDS Crisis,” few things may astonish more than life-sustaining drugs advertised on network television. Yet that’s where we are in 2023. Thousands still die annually from HIV/AIDS related illnesses, while tens of thousands more can thrive with the disease.
The cast of Front Porch Theatricals’ production of Falsettos. (Images: Martha Smith)
It was into the bad old days, the late ’70s and Reagan ’80s, that William Finn and James Lapine first launched Falsettos, a musical comedy/drama (in that order) that centers on an unconventional, dysfunctional family confronting a new world.
Falsettos took a while to catch on, before striking it big on Broadway a decade after it was introduced. It can be a beast to produce, sung in a nonstop series of vignettes about familial complexities that vex as much as they charm. Alternately funny and heartbreaking, things get messy in Falsettos. People’s lives are messy. And there is no escaping that jolt when we realize we are at the start of an insidious, deadly disease.
The Front Porch Theatricals production of the rarely done Falsettos, now at the New Hazlett Theater, mines the gold in the messiness – the human need for love and connection, and the desperation to hold onto it once you find it. The cast of seven pushes all our emotional buttons and sings the heck out of Finn’s Tony-winning score.
The music persists like a runaway train – “frenetic and insistent,” as one scholar put it – with a breather only for intermission and a few notable solos. It’s no accident that Finn connected with Lapine, frequent collaborator with that master of complex compositions, Stephen Sondheim.
Directed by Rob James, with music director Deana Muro, the actors imbue each character-driven song with their talents, of course, but also with raw edges of believability. An embrace might not seem to be perfectly timed, or a pirouette might come to a shaky halt, but those ticks, when they show up, fit the action of the moment.
Chad Elder, an accomplished musical theater actor, often seen with Stage 62 of Carnegie, portrays Marvin, who can be brutal one moment and brittle the next. Marvin stands firm at the center of the chaos he has created, and he doesn’t take it well when anyone disagrees with him. Marvin has come out as gay, divorced his wife and left her and his son for lover Whizzer (Sam Bucci), a Freddie Mercury lookalike with a hunky swagger. “Left” is not quite accurate – Marvin wants to enjoy the exciting, somewhat sado-masochistic love he has discovered with Whizzer, and brings him into the family fold.
They eat dinner together – father, mother, son, and dad’s lover.
Son Jason (Matthew Frontz, a Pittsburgh CAPA sixth-grader) bears witness to it all, retreating into solo chess games. “My father says that love / Is the most beautiful thing in the world,” he sings. But Jason disagrees. For this boy watching his family torn apart, there’s beauty in chess, or girls. “Not love.”
Jason’s mom, Trina (Jenna Kantor), the product of a traditional Jewish upbringing, frets herself into a frenzy – who wouldn’t? But self-centered Marvin isn’t listening. “I want it all,” he sings, including “a tight-knit family.” Marvin has a nasty streak that makes him the villain at times. We can perhaps relate to his desires, if not his demands.
Adding to the tension is planning Jason’s bar mitzvah. The plot takes a turn when Marvin sends his long-suffering ex to his psychiatrist, and we meet two actors who are new to Front Porch and to me, and both are well-ment.
Kantor is a well-traveled dancer, actress and performing arts physical therapist, as well as a relative newcomer to Pittsburgh. As Trina, she starts out as a wreck, expressed in the aptly named “Trina’s Song,” wherein she is having a mental breakdown while preparing a meal – clearly, she should not have a knife in her hand. It’s a full-bodied cry for help from someone who’s life has gone completely off the rails. Soprano Kantor bemoans and belts and breaks down in what is a highlight of the show.
The other revelation is Justin Borak as Mendel, the “schlub psychiatrist” who falls for Trina – he knows it’s a no-no, but can’t help himself. Borak is a second-year acting student at West Virginia University who has a bunch of regional credits and has been on the creative side of the stage.
His Mendel would seem to define “awkward,” even schlubby, until he opens his mouth and a well-trained Broadway voice makes its appearance. Mendel is often the voice of reason amid the childish behavior of the other adults around him, and Borak pulls that off with aplomb. Of the men in Jason’s life, the nonjudgmental Whizzer and Borak’s Mendel are comforting and sane. Mendel is good for mother and son – and Marvin doesn’t like that, either.
Marvin is due for an epiphany, and he finally has one. It’s only then, when love does become that beautiful thing he has so often told Jason about, it is fleeting,
Chad Elder’s Marvin is the center of attention in Falsettos, with Sam Bucci,
Justin Borak, Jenna Kantor and Matthew Frontz. (Martha Smith)
All the while, remember, these folks are conversing in song, with some melodies that rival Sondheim for complexity and sparkle. Memorable numbers include “The Baseball Game”: “We’re watching Jason play baseball / We’re watching Jewish boys, / Who cannot play baseball, play baseball …”
A lot can happen in the course of a baseball game, and does. That’s near the start of the second act, when Whizzer and Marvin reunite, cute, after a separation. “What More Can I Say” is a sweet solo by Elder that shows he is changing. It’s also a much needed break from all the bickering and chaos, and the quiet before the heartache.
Among those rooting on Jason are lesbian neighbors and family friends Cordelia (Lindsay Bayer) and Dr. Charlotte (Natalie Hatcher), talented actresses who show up in the second act and exemplify a well-adjusted couple. That Charlotte is a doctor is a hint of what’s to come.
Listening to Hatcher’s Doc lament that “Something Bad is Happening,” I was struck by how it may have influenced Stephen Schwartz’s “Something Bad,” in Wicked. There were several times I could hear echoes of how the Finn/Lapine piece have inspired successors, but that was the most notable.
The actors, as they sing and dance in and out of each other’s orbits, negotiate a seemingly massive multilevel concrete-gray set, punctuated with lines of light that change color with each bouncy note. At first, I tried to calculate if the lights were specific to characters or moods, but I gave up because that was too distracting an exercise. When I just went with it, the lights became part of the flow, almost another character. Designed by Johnmichael Bohach, with lighting design by Andrew David Ostrowski, the scenic design complements the characters’ highs and lows, growth and regression, with young Jason often above the fray, looking down at bickering adults.
Falsettos is not your typical revival fare, but then, Front Porch is not your typical summer stock company, as it pushes at our comfort zones with provocative works.
This particular show, a cobbling of “March of the Falsettos” and “Falsettoland,” takes a big swing from dysfunction in a specifically Jewish family to matters of life and death, with overarching LGBTQ+ subject matter. And then there are those pesky puppets …
The lone Broadway revival of Falsettos was a Tony-nominated affair in 2016, and even then, Finn fretted about how audiences would react. He told Playbill, “It’s a different world we live in now, so I wonder how it’s going to be received. I don’t even know if the show evinces the horribleness of the times because it’s talking about family and a lot of other things – in a world that is being devoured by AIDS.” How it will be received has changed again, dramatically, in a world changed by the COVID epidemic. Presented by Front Porch, with a talented cast singing an award-winning score, on a set that literally dazzles, Falsettos lands as highly entertaining, emotionally captivating theatrical art.
TICKETS AND DETAILS
Front Porch Theatricals’ production of Falsettos is at the New Hazlett Theater, North Side through May 28. Tickets and details: https://www.frontporchpgh.com/ or 412-320-4610.