Short Term Listings
BOOKS and CDs
LETTERS TO EDITOR
Writing for Us
A CurtainUp Berkshires Review
By Elyse Sommer
Is it worth bringing back? The flaws are so minor, that the answer is a decided Yes.
First the score, which is after all the topmost consideration in any musical's evaluation. William Finn's sung-through score is lyrical and sophisticated, full of intricate multiple harmonies. The more than three dozen lyrics are an effortless combination of emotional warmth and sophistication. Unlike many musical theater composers Mr. Finn does not rely on reprises though with forty-one songs that just keep coming along there is a feeling of repetition that seems to beg at least a few deletions. As with any musical, there are numbers that will stick in your memory more than others -- with everyone's favorite likely to be "The Baseball Game " with the full ensemble near the top of Act Two, with "Everyone Hates His Parents" a close second.
Second, there's the book. The Finn-James Lapine libretto is something of a soap opera but it remains a heartwarming mix of sad and funny The 1981 onset of the AIDS epidemic may make this seem like a something of a period piece but this dark chapter in our medical history is hardly a closed book. And there are more and more kids who can identify with a family network is not the American as Apple Pie norm.
Then there's the cast and the look and pace of the production. All praiseworthy.
Rob Ruggiero directs the production with the same vitality and pace he brought to No Way To Treat a Lady (our review) a few seasons ago, and with two members of that cast (Bradley Dean and Leslie Denniston). The miking, as is usual in this big high school auditorium, takes getting used to and some of the cast need a bit for their voices to warm up, but generally speaking all seven rise to the challenge of the intricacies of the often overlapping songs. All move with great fluidity manage to embellish the humor when their characters need to be funny, and to intensify the heartache of the more intense moments.
Director Ruggiero and his able design cast have mounted the show with stimulating, minimalist staging. The four much-used doors of cool blue and green set may seem more suitable for a farce than a story that makes bringing along tissues mandatory, but they work for both the first act and the more realistic (and superior) soap-operatic second half. The few simple roll-out props, which include an over-sized symbolic heart, retain the chamber musical genre's intimacy. The musicians are discreetly tucked away behind the set, seen only during one moment when that heart moves up and away.
Bradley Dean is a fine Marvin and there's a believable and touching energy between him and Robert Hunt, a handsome and endearing Whizzer. Philip Hoffman, who here plays Mendel, though he's also played Marvin in other productions, is wonderful as the 60s psychiatrist navigating the 80s world. Young Jacob Heimer has a fine voice and is just right as the boy who in "My Father Is a Homo" complains that "My mother is no wife, my father is no man" and whose bar mitzvah truly marks his becoming not just a man but a mensch. The three female roles are ably played by Sandy Binion as Trina, and the second act arrivals, Cheryl Stern and Leslie Denniston. Stern as the very domestic Cordelia and Denniston as the doctor she is thrilled to have nabbed, add some needed additional humor to the darkening mood. They also provide comfort in the form of medical care and culinary treats to Whizzer and what has become his family.
Perhaps the best illustration of Finn's success in the universal appeal of the story as well as the lyrical, sophisticated score is the success of The National Asian American Theatre Company's 1998 Off-Broadway production of Falsettoland (Our Review). As that cast and the current ensemble at Barrington Stage prove, you don't have to be Jewish or Gay to appreciate the terrific harmonies and lyrics, to enjoy the humor and zip of " The Baseball Game" and to wipe a tear from your eyes during such schmaltzy ballads as "Unlikely Lovers."
Finn's more than forty songs are not quite as recognizably hummable as those in Roger & Hammerstein's South Pacific, which opened Barrington Stage's season, but the two musicals, with their very different styles, turn out to be a very apt bookends. Both are about accepting differences. Both feature music and lyrics by men at the top of their creative game. South Pacific, with its almost too familiar score, was well-timed to coincide with Richard Rodger's hundredth birthday.
Falsettos is timely in its own way, as a reminder that the disease that still had no name in 1981, is still with us even though many young people are misguidedly ignoring its continued grim consequences. Both demonstrate the pleasures of musicals as vibrant and intelligent theater.
Mr. Finn, like Stephen Sondheim, proves that lyricism and the sung-through operatic musical can be as compatible as -- well, a family in which " Father's a Homo", your mother falls in love with his Shrink, and the Lesbians next door become part of the clan. Whether you saw part or all of it before or not, this revival is well worth a trip to Sheffield.
6,500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
Click image to buy.
Go here for details and larger image.