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A CurtainUp Review
Falsettoland By Les Gutman
It may make you laugh when you hear about it, but this all Asian-American rendition of William Finn's bar mitzvah musical, Falsettoland, is no joke. It's well-thought out, ably-performed and designed with elegant simplicity. (With Finn's latest musical currently on stage at Lincoln Center (A New Brain, see link to CurtainUp's review below), it is also a well-timed production of what many consider Finn's high water mark.
Falsettoland is the final part of Finn's "Marvin" trilogy, which began with In Trousers and continued with March of the Falsettos. Marvin (Jason Ma) left his wife Trina (Ann Harada) and son Jason (Kennedy Kanagawa) for a man, Whizzer (Welly Yang). Trina is now married to Marvin's old psychiatrist, Mendel (Merv Maruyama). As the show begins, Jason is preparing for his bar mitzvah. Being used as a pawn between his divorced parents has eviscerated the event of any religious meaning, and any remaining sense of celebration is further dampened by the advent of AIDS, which has grabbed Whizzer in its clutches. (Jason is very close to his father's lover.)
Originally produced in the early years of this decade but set a decade earlier, Falsettos now almost seems a bit of a period piece: AIDS is a "new" crisis (introduced by the song, "Something Bad is Happening"), and one which only seems to inflict gay men; Jason plays with a Rubik's cube -- no computers are in sight. Still, it combines humor and sorrow in a way that remains touching, and fills the relationships on which it is constructed with great integrity. Finn has always been treated as a step-child of Sondheim and, while his craft may rarely if ever measure up, he writes with an immediacy that often surpasses his guide.
Alan Maraoka directs simply but with great clarity and wit. Musical staging is equally precise and good-humored, and never overdone. Sarah Lambert has also kept the set design clean and simple, suggestive rather than evocative. A group of chairs with cushions of symbolic colors form its most important feature. Two parallel curtains, pulled across the stage by the actors, are also effective in setting each scene, although they could have been a little less noisy).
Ann Harada is excellent: funny, endearing and yet filled with the frustration that typifies the challenges of maintaining a second marriage and raising a son under trying circumstances. Although Merv Maruyama starts the show a bit shaky, he quickly redeems himself in "The Baseball Game" (one of the show's song standouts) and even more so in the excellent "Everyone Hates His Parents," in which he charmingly uses his professional skills to win over Jason. Kennedy Kanagawa is perfect as Jason, blending exuberance, nerdiness and anxiety into perhaps the most Jewish-seeming 13 year old Asian boy on the planet.
Jason Ma and Welly Yang are both excellent performers. Yang does terrific work in the difficult transition from healthy, handsome, competitive lover to AIDS patient with a great deal of resolve. The only false note in the production is the seeming tentativeness and lack of intimacy in the portrayal of their relationship.
The remaining cast, the lesbian couple from next door, Dr. Charlotte (Christine Toy Johnson), who is also Whizzer's doctor, and Cordelia (Mimosa), are equally strong. Mimosa's adorable performance as the culinarily-challenged Cordelia is especially engaging.
The goal of National Asian American Theatre Company, to give Asian American artists the chance to perform in western "classics"" without forced cultural references (and thus to allow them to demonstrate their abilities), is certainly achieved here. This is a cast led by seasoned professionals; winning performances throughout make one quickly stop thinking about how Asians can play Jews and the like. Singing voices are a special treat, reflecting the Broadway backgrounds of many of the cast members, and certainly finer than the show's off-off Broadway label would normally deliver. I might quibble with the characterization of Falsettoland as a classic just yet, but it is nice to see it back on a New York stage, especially in such good hands.
©Copyright July 1998, Elyse Sommer, CurtainUp.
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