Theater » Theater Feature

Falsettos explores life and death in the Reagan era.



A well-deserved standing-O to Theatre Memphis for reviving Falsettos, William Finn and James Lapine's nearly perfect musical about flawed people living through confusion and catastrophe as the obsessive 1970s crash into the excessive '80s. Additional applause for producing an intimate show that could nevertheless fill a big room in their little black box where audiences can experience things up close.

With its pop-operatic score and lyrics that sound as fresh today as they did 36 years ago, the show's a gift, and TM's beautifully designed, effortlessly performed take is enhanced by proximity. Audiences don't so much watch the many trials and tribulations of Marvin and his family, as live through them like friends and neighbors. Laughter during good times is shared, and handkerchiefs are recommended, particularly if you remember the dawn of the AIDS era, before the killer disease had a name.

A sickening sense of dread sets in about halfway through Falsettos, slice-of-life contrivance about life and death in the wake of sexual revolution. Composed and set in the uneasy period just before HIV was identified and AIDS entered the mass-vocabulary, it conveys awareness that "something bad is happening." Something vast and terrifying that, being nameless, also seems unknowable. This is the horror stamped on top of Falsettos' domestic drama, and every piece of it's as real as anything that's ever been sung front-to-back.

The program for Falsettos identifies Jack Yates as the scenic designer while Mandy Heath is credited for lighting, but this is a full-on environmental collaboration. Yates has built a flat cutout skyline, outlined in color-changing LED rope-lights. But Heath's illumination paints in all the details, frames the action, and amplifies this rollercoaster show's emotional content. When Emily Chateau sings "I'm Breaking Down," a whimsically rendered but very intense monologue from a woman on the verge, shadows fall and slashes of multicolored light crackle across the rooftops of sickly green and yellow buildings, like an electrical storm in the poor woman's brain. It's just the right tone for Trina, a woman whose ex-husband's a control freak who left her for another man but still wants a normal family life with the kid. And for her to still behave like a dutiful wife, while he's off self-fulfilling. There's a lot to work through, and Chateau's technically excellent, unfussy run through this reliable show-stopper is perfectly isolated by Yates' simple structures and lifted by a dynamic lighting design that's gorgeous when it needs to be but never afraid to be a garish as life.

It's hard to muster much sympathy for abusers, and when we meet him, this ensemble musical's functional protagonist meets the criteria. Marvin's newfound liberty casts a chilling shadow over ex-wife Trina and his less-than-monogamous lover Whizzer. Nothing can grow in its shade, and Marvin's struggling to connect with his precocious son Jason — terrifically acted and sung by Joshua Pearce. When the abuse gets physical, Marvin appears past redemption. But community intervenes. Growth and grave circumstances make room for a lot of grace, and Cary Vaughn's subtle performance as Marvin commands sympathy even when forgiveness is off the table.

Director Jerry Chipman also gets great performances from Greg Earnest as the doomed Whizzer, Charles McGowan III as Mendel, the romantically compromised family shrink, and Jaclyn Suffel and Christina Hernandez as the friendly lesbians next door.

There's no easy way to summarize Falsettos other than to say it's a musical that should appeal even to folks who are usually suspect of musicals. Ellen Inghram and Jared Johnson's hilariously half-assed choreography looks like it was custom made for everyday people living ordinary lives in an alternate dimension where people sing at each other. If there is a message in the sprawl, it's that life's more complicated than a three-part mini-opera wrapped inside a four-part modern operetta. That and "everybody's gotta go sometime." You should go make reservations soon; seating is limited.

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