Grapevine theater’s dysfunctional family musical hits all the high notes
To classify Falsettos as simply a musical about AIDS doesn't give it enough credit. Though it is set during the rise of the health crisis, the show is as much about family — dysfunctional, though loving — as it is a time capsule of late '70s to early '80s America.
At Runway Theatre in Grapevine, audiences experience this William Finn musical with an impressive cast. Finn's score isn't an easy one to sing (or play — kudos to music director Rebecca Lowrey and her two musicians), with a good chunk of the 41 total songs played as talky snippets or intricate reprises. But mostly strong vocals make this complicated musical much easier to navigate, and a few standout performances give added depth.
Falsettos is actually two one-act musicals smushed together. Finn wrote the first act, originally titled March of the Falsettos, in 1981 with James Lapine collaborating on the book, and he expanded the story with Falsettoland in 1990. The two pieces became whole on Broadway in 1992 and scooped up Tony Awards for best book and best score.
The show's opening number introduces us to "Four Jews in a Room Bitching": Marvin, his son Jason, his lover Whizzer, and his psychiatrist Mendel. Marvin has been married to Trina for years, but has recently come out as gay and taken up with Whizzer. However, Marvin still wishes to keep his family intact, an unusual living arrangement that has sent everyone into therapy.
David Lewis makes it hard to find sympathy for Marvin, as often he comes off as a petulant child who wants everything both ways, no matter the cost to the people he supposedly loves. A few unsteady notes and a seeming uncomfortable-ness with director Lon D. Barrera's busy staging, and Lewis doesn't quite measure up to his castmates.
Then again, it's hard to share the stage with Matthew Vinson, a young actor with poise beyond his years and an ear for Finn's complicated notes. Vinson often steals the show as Jason, giving the teenager in turmoil much more than simply angst and attitude. Why isn't this kid getting cast all over town?
Perhaps he gets it from his mother, played by Stephanie Felton. With an epic breakdown song ("I'm Breaking Down") and an equally powerful rumination on her unexpected love life ("Trina's Song"), Felton imbues Trina with shades of uncertainty and optimism, making her choice to incorporate Marvin and his lover into her life much more understandable.
Brendon Gallagher physically fits the bill as the muscular Whizzer, but his classical voice seems at times unsuited to Finn's choppy style. As the psychiatrist who treats Marvin but ends up marrying Trina, Ben Phillips brings a strong voice and willing sense of playfulness to his at-times-ridiculous character.
In the second act, we're introduced to "the lesbians next door," Dr. Charlotte (Jennifer Kuenzer, fabulously no-nonsense) and Cordelia (Ashley Renae Markgraf), a wannabe catering chef who struggles at times with her partner's draining profession.
The first Broadway revival of Falsettos was semi-recently announced, then postponed, then postponed again, and is now tentatively scheduled for the 2016-17 season. If that's too long to wait, Runway has a worthy alternative.
Falsettos plays at Runway Theatre through October 18.