Falsettos, the Tony-Award winning (book and score) William Finn/James Lapine show, comes from a marriage of two works written ten years apart: March of the Falsettos and Falsettoland. It’s a family drama with Finn’s trademark dark and probing comedy; it’s a clever study of human relationships and the nature of love.
Marvin (Tamlyn Henderson) left his wife Trina (Katrina Retallick) and son Jason (Anthony Garcia on opening night) for his lover, Whizzer (Ben Hall) but is fixated on having a strong family life, insisting that he and his wife and son and partner all have dinner together. This is not a breezy setup for shenanigans: what follows is an examination of life and how people deal with it. Trina falls for Marvin’s psychiatrist (Stephen Anderson); Marvin and Whizzer try to figure out their roles within their relationship, their purpose together, and how to build love when they’re attracted to the passion of fighting. Jason, twelve and precocious and growing up fast, is just trying to navigate adolescence, family, and genetics as best he can. The second act meets them all again, two years later in 1981, and the AIDS crisis hits far too close to home.
It’s a moving, funny, multi-layered piece of musical theatre.
Sung through, Falsettos – directed by Stephen Colyer – is a hyper-frenetic low-fi eruption. Performed with only a piano, a mostly-bare set and no amplification, the exploration of character emerges in two distinct, crucial areas: in the vocal arrangements, and in the choreography.
The choreography is a melokinetic feast and deeply embedded in this production’s DNA. Highly stylised, the movement favours the hands: twisting, pulling, wringing. It’s neurotic, sometimes confrontational, sometimes extremely careful, and it’s a clever outward representation of the emotions suppressed by the characters. When they reach their breaking points, the choreography moves into something full-bodied and all-encompassing: the repetitious, tic-modeled format lends itself to Trina’s exercise-themed breakdown (“I’m Breaking Down”) and it’s aggressive, reminding us that it’s funny to watch, but still pretty confronting for these characters.
It all settles down in the second act as the various characters, a little older (a lot older than the passing two years should allow) and making a concerted effort to verblise their feelings, slow their hands and present a more authentic show of movement on stage. In this way it reflects the story: in the first act the play sketches out our characters, and in the second act they get a little more real when confronted directly with tragedy.
There’s still a break for comedy, even in the beautifully simple “What More Can I Say” – Marvin finding peace with his renewed relationship with Whizzer with a quiet ballad still includes a little choreographed bathroom humour; life and love is messy and real even when it’s happy, this show says, and it’s a welcome change from idealised love so often seen on stage.
In the second act, too, the harmonies get a little sweeter. Injected with a breath of fresh air in the form of Dr Charlotte (Margi de Ferranti) and Cordelia (Elise McCann), good friends of Marvin and the family, a more balanced and rounded sound tugs at yearning and tenderness.
The family unit as a concept becomes more complex as the women – a lesbian couple – represent with Marvin and Whizzer the “family made of friends” concept that is particularly prevalent in the queer community, and as Mendel (the psychiatrist) and Trina must too confront Whizzer’s illness and its far-reaching impact, especially, heartbreakingly, with Jason, who is like a son to each of these adults.
Everyone is in fine voice; Henderson’s Marvin and Retallick’s Trina are clear standouts, and de Ferranti and McCann are so essential to the emotional weight of the second act that they are just as impressive as if they had been there from the first. Garcia’s Jason is a performance of impressive stamina for a young performer; he doesn’t miss a beat with these seasoned adults, and he plays his confusion and helpless anger very well.
This is the first musical in the Eternity Playhouse and it sits so comfortably as a boutique piece on its stage: let’s hope this is a promising sign of things to come, as we build up a more robust independent musical theatre scene in Sydney.