Local Arts

Review: Powerful, poetic ‘Falsettos’ soars with tight-knit ensemble at Knight Theater

The first national touring company of “Falsettos” is pictured here. The 2016 Broadway revival of “Falsettos” comes to the Knight Theater June 25-30 as part of the Broadway Lights series.
The first national touring company of “Falsettos” is pictured here. The 2016 Broadway revival of “Falsettos” comes to the Knight Theater June 25-30 as part of the Broadway Lights series. Joan Marcus courtesy of Blumenthal Performing Arts

William Wordsworth called poetry “powerful feelings... from emotion recollected in tranquility.” Maybe that’s why the national tour of “Falsettos” makes such an effect in the Broadway Lights series. Roughly 40 years after the play is set and 27 years after the original version won Tony Awards for book and score, it has more weight than ever. For all its brashness, humor, exploitation and explosion of stereotypes, it now seems poetic.

It started as two one-act plays off-Broadway, “March of the Falsettos” and “Falsettoland,” in 1981 and 1990. Composer-lyricist William Finn and author-director James Lapine shaped those into the two-act “Falsettos” in 1992, and its 2016 revival sparked a five-month U.S. tour that closes Sunday in Charlotte.

In 1992, wounds were still open: Most of society disparaged openly gay people, a diagnosis of HIV/AIDS was inevitably a death sentence and gender uncertainty seemed at best a freakish confusion. The play came across as a news report transformed into a witty, poignant cultural experience.

Seeing it now, when the progressiveness of recent years has created a backlash of negativity, is disturbing in a different and maybe deeper way. A life-sized Nancy Reagan doll got an easy laugh Tuesday at Knight Theater. The realization that we still have far to go toward accepting people as they are – especially in non-nuclear families – produced some uneasy tears.

Aside from putting the small, barely visible orchestra onstage, director Lapine has retained the revival’s concept: Stylized and even absurdist behavior on a non-realistic set in the first act, down-to-Earth performances on a set with realistic furniture in the second.

The opening number, “Four Jews in a Room Bitching,” launches us with a verbal pas de quatre in 1979. Marvin (Max von Essen) has left his wife Trina (Eden Espinosa) and 10-year-old son Jason (Jonah Mussolino on the night I saw it) for Whizzer, a charismatic philanderer (Nick Adams). Trina has taken up with Marvin’s former shrink, Mendel (Nick Blaemire). The four male characters lay out anxieties that play out over the next 75 minutes in a funny, frantic way.

In act two, set in 1981, things slow down physically, if not emotionally. We meet Trina’s next-door neighbors, a lesbian doctor and caterer (Bryonha Marie Parham and Audrey Cardwell), and most of the adults obsess over Jason’s upcoming bar mitzvah. Marvin and Whizzer have reunited after their breakup in act one, but all the characters except the caterer face threats to their peace of mind.

Despite the main quintet’s emotional outpourings among each other, they share their deepest feelings only in soliloquies. The audience becomes a friend to whom they confide fears and frustrations, knowing we’ll be sympathetic. Whizzer’s pain, Marvin’s bewilderment, Mendel’s disgust over “yuppie pagan” patients, Jason’s puberty-driven worries and especially Trina’s feelings of despair, expressed in the hilarious “I’m Breaking Down,” show feelings they can’t or won’t share with each other.

That number, meant to stop the show, does so in Espinosa’s wild-eyed rendition. All the actors deserve high praise: So small an ensemble would crack if one couldn’t match the others, but they’re equally fine. And Knight Theater, whose smaller scale encourages intimacy with performers, is the right place to see them.

“Falsettos”

WHEN: Through June 30 at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 1:30 and 7 p.m. Sunday.

WHERE: Knight Theater, 430 S. Tryon St.

RUNNING TIME: 160 minutes with one intermission.

TICKETS: $25-$109.50.

DETAILS: 704-372-1000 or blumenthalarts.org.

This story is part of an Observer underwriting project with the Thrive Campaign for the Arts, supporting arts journalism in Charlotte.

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