nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
June 15, 2007
National Asian American Theatre Company's revival of William Finn & James Lapine's musical Falsettoland is a triumph in every way. This show—so groundbreaking when it was seen on Broadway 15 years ago—still has the ability to pack a significant emotional wallop. This production, elegantly directed by Alan Muraoka with superb music direction by W. Brent Sawyer, reminds us that times of crisis can bring out the very best in people, pulling them together to provide unconditional support and love.
The story, which is a sequel to Finn's March of the Falsettos, concerns Marvin, who left his wife Trina and son Jason for a man, Whizzer; Marvin and Whizzer subsequently broke up and as Falsettoland begins, he is living alone, very focused (as is Trina) on Jason's upcoming bar mitzvah. (Trina has re-married, to Marvin's former psychiatrist, Mendel.)
At one of Jason's baseball games, Marvin and Whizzer reunite and, finding the old spark still very much alive, they get back together. But it's not long before Whizzer starts to show signs of a mysterious illness (the show is set in the early 1980s) that we can identify as AIDS. "Something very bad is happening," sings Marvin's neighbor, a doctor named Charlotte, "Something that kills / Something contagious / Something that spreads from one man to another."
Whizzer's disease brings perspective to the denizens of Falsettoland: Marvin's squabbles with Trina over the bar mitzvah arrangements suddenly seem unimportant. Finally, the show is more about the strengthening of a makeshift, unorthodox family unit than it is about the tragic end of a romance. Trina, who really is our guide into this show, as well as its conscience, tells us "I'm trying to keep sane as the rules keep changing / Families aren't what they were." Her song continues
I hold to the ground as the ground keeps shifting
Keeping my balance square
Trying not to care about this man who Marvin loves
But that's my life
He shared my life
Yes that's my life
The final scenes of the show, brilliantly staged by Muraoka (who solves a problem with the ending that Finn and Lapine never managed in the original), remind us that acceptance and compassion are paramount in coping with a world that keeps shifting under our feet.
NAATCO has brought together an outstanding ensemble, led by Jason Ma's heartfelt and beautifully sung Marvin. Francis Jue is likably avuncular as Mendel, while Christine Toy Johnson and MaryAnn Hu are fine as Dr. Charlotte and her kosher-caterer partner, Cordelia. 13-year-old Ben Wu is perfectly unaffected and real as Jason. But the standouts here are Manu Narayan, as a sexy, frisky, warm-hearted Whizzer, and Ann Sanders as Trina, whose smart, compassionate performance moves her character from the story's sidelines firmly to its emotional center.
Scenic elements by Sarah Lambert are simple but enormously effective (they consist, mostly, of seven chairs, each one upholstered in one of the colors of the gay pride rainbow flag); costumes (Ron Glow) and lighting (Stephen Petrilli) also serve the production splendidly.
Falsettoland is about taking care of each other in troubling times, and NAATCO's revival ups the ante by reminding us that "each other" really means everybody: seven actors of Asian descent play seven neurotic urban Jews without comment and it's neither jarring nor politically pointed. Mendel sings at the show's end: "Homosexuals / Women with children / Short insomniacs / We're a teeny tiny band." This production stands as tribute to the notion that we're all in this together.