There are cycles of history at play in Rep Stage’s production of Falsettos. The Tony-winning musical, featuring music and lyrics by William Finn, who co-wrote the book with James Lapine, takes place between 1979 and 1981 against the backdrop of the burgeoning AIDS crisis. It made its Broadway debut in 1992; two years later, it was part of Rep Stage’s opening season. Now, under the excellent stewardship of Producing Artistic Director Joseph W. Ritsch and Musical Director Tiffany Underwood Holmes, it brings Rep Stage full circle as the company prepares to close its doors.
The story of Falsettos, told in a cascade of musical numbers, centers on Marvin (Jake Loewenthal), who divorces his wife, Trina (Sarah Corey), after coming out of the closet and moving in with his lover, Whizzer (Davon Williams). After an initial period of bliss, Marvin and Whizzer’s romance begins to sour. Trina, meanwhile, is wooed by Marvin’s therapist, Mendel (Michael Perrie Jr.), who makes a more considerate counterpart than her self-centered ex. In the middle of it all is Marvin and Trina’s son, Jason (Grayden Goldman), who finds all these competing parental interests tedious. With the help of lesbian couple Dr. Charlotte (Justine “Icy” Moral) and Cordelia (Amber Wood), the makeshift family struggles to find harmony, a project that appears to bear fruit until a mysterious new epidemic threatens to take out one of their number for good.
As a sung-through musical, Falsettos is relentlessly driven by Finn’s score, and Ritsch’s production snaps with the appropriate energy and assuredness from the sardonic opening number, “Four Jews in a Room Bitching.” Daniel Etttinger’s set, all neon colors and sharp angles, is dominated by a row of five electric-blue doors, through which the characters pop in and pop out, lending the proceedings a farcical rhythm that suits Finn and Lapine’s wry observations on love and neuroses. Ritsch choreographs the numbers—ranging from the sporting (“Raquetball I & II”) to the surreal (“March of the Falsettos”)—with simple clarity, making good use of wheeled furniture to shift the action and, occasionally, letting the actors indulge in a little chair-ography. Backed by a small but superb musical ensemble—Jennifer Campbell (winds), Erika Johnson (percussion), Catina McLagan (keys), and Elisa Rosman (keys)—the cast takes to Finn’s overlapping lyrics and cascading melodies largely with ease, with Loewenthal’s smooth tenor the standout voice. Perrie Jr. and Goldman earn the requisite laughs as easy-going Mendel and precocious Jason, respectively. Corey, meanwhile, is affecting as the exasperated Trina, never more so than in the solo “I’m Breaking Down,” in which she takes out her frustration on a hapless mound of dough.
As dramaturg Khalid Yaya Long notes in the program, a 30-year-old show set ten years earlier certainly qualifies as a period piece, and there are qualities of the time and aspects of the show’s construction that jar a bit today. Marvin seems determined to hold first his wife and then his partner to a domestic standard that was already becoming retrograde in 1979 but is only fitfully tested here. The show, meanwhile, is made up of two one-acts, March of the Falsettos and Falsettoland, stitched together, which is partly why Charlotte and Cordelia, though wonderfully played by Moral and Wood, are somewhat awkward additions to the second act. Their inclusion, however, does yield one of the musical’s most heartfelt numbers, “Unlikely Lovers,” in which the two queer couples reflect on the love they have found. It brings out the best in Williams’s Whizzer, who is in many ways the bruised heart of the show and whose tangle with mortality reminds the audience how far the world has come in the fight against AIDS.
If there is one enduring quality of a musical like Falsettos, it is the way it dissects family in all its messy, diverse forms with just a spoonful of musical comedy sugar. It’s a counterpoint to other hits of the period, among them the sweeping political epic Angels in America and the zeitgeisty rock opera Rent, that brought queer communities and those living with AIDS to the mainstream. In Falsettos, particularly as realized in a production as well-made as this, queer love and family are everyday phenomena (admittedly of the middle-class variety). At a time when political forces are policing the definitions of family and rolling back LGBTQ+ protections, that has a value all its own. For all the marks of its time, staging Falsettos now is a perfectly good way to meditate on what has and has not changed over the ages of Finn and Lapine’s musical—and a perfectly great way to end Rep Stage’s tenure on a high note.
Running Time: Two hours and 15 minutes, with a 15-minute intermission.
Falsettos runs through May 14, 2023, presented by Rep Stage performing in the Rouse Company Foundation Studio Theatre at the Horowitz Visual and Performing Arts Center on the Howard Community College campus, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia, MD. Tickets are available online and are $40 for general admission, $35 for seniors and military, $15 for students with a current ID, and $20 on Thursdays. For tickets and additional information, visit repstage.org or call the Horowitz Center Box Office at 443-518-1500 ext. 0. The box office is open Wednesdays through Fridays, 12 noon to 4 p.m. and 90 minutes prior to performance times.
Parking is available in a garage directly across from the Horowitz Center. There’s also non-garage parking in nearby lots.
COVID Safety: Face masks are encouraged in Horowitz Center venues. Patrons are not required to provide proof of vaccination; Howard Community College students must provide proof of vaccination and report positive COVID cases. More information can be found here.
Music & Lyrics by William Finn
Book by William Finn & James Lapine
Trina: Sarah Corey
Jason: Grayden Goldman
Marvin: Jake Loewenthal
Dr. Charlotte: Justine Icy Moral
Mendel: Michael Perrie Jr.
Whizzer: Davon Williams
Cordelia: Amber Wood
Director: Joseph W. Ritsch
Music Director: Tiffany Underwood Holmes
Scenic Design: Daniel Ettinger
Sound Design: Adam Mendelson
Lighting Design: Conor Mulligan
Costume Design: Julie Potter
Props Design: Amy Kellett
Dramaturg: Khalid Long
Violence/Intimacy: Jenny Male
Assistant Scenic Design: Emily Lotz
Stage Manager: Jenn Schwartz
Howard Community College to shut Rep Stage after final two shows (news story, November 11, 2022)