Falsettos hits a high note, addressing gay issues

By Jason Hartford

It is always a pleasure to see one's pet subjects treated decently in the theater - a shallow interpretation of a complex problem is a critic's worst nightmare. I find it heartening that, after a few little baubles like Love! Valor! Compassion! and the flavor-of-the-month craze that gave Angels in America its undeserved place in history, the difficulties facing gay relationships in the early '80s should finally see a decent as well as entertaining treatment. Not that Falsettos is pure commentary - on the contrary, it has the infectious showmanship that makes a good musical memorable, not to mention a difficult score par for the script. Few, however, have the sophistication to pull such a production off, and it is in the interpretation that the director, Bobby Cronin, TD '95, has done so well.

Although the play has a nominal center in Marvin (Andy Gersick, BR '96), a gay Jewish man who has divorced his wife in favor of his lover, Falsettos does not truly have a leading role. Instead, it explores the effects of emotional needs and cowardice among Marvin, his ex-wife Trina (Anika Larsen, TC '95), his son Jason (Assaf Ben-Atar), his lover Whizzer (Michael Bahar, DC '97), and his psychiatrist Mendel (D.C. Scarpelli, ES '95), who marries his ex-wife. As such it is properly the story of a family and turns quickly from member to member in its plot, yielding a collective feel without spreading the central intrigue too thinly - the characters' closeness maintains the tension.

In the hands of director Cronin and his cast, this play becomes a superior exercise in teamwork. The actors play off each other well emotionally, and both the cueing and choreography belie a smoothness that a less cohesive group could simply not achieve.

That said, there are still star performances. Like Cronin, Larsen is using the play as her senior project in the theater studies major, and, as in his case, it's an excellent career presentation. Her voice is smooth, powerful, expressive - simply marvelous, and, combined with her stage presence, makes her principal scenes (especially "I'm breaking down" in Act I) a joy to experience. Juxtaposed with her, Gersick acquits himself bravely as the tortured, slow-learning Marvin, although his earnestness doesn't quite have the same sting. As Whizzer, the hunky flyboy, Bahar is plausible - no small feat for a character with rather bland lines who must somehow appear as both a sexual shark and a budding father figure. (I must admit that his prettiness proved very distracting.) Somehow he sings better than he falsettos - one of many pleasant ironies in the show. Scarpelli makes up in comic talent what he lacks in voice. Perhaps a psychiatrist should not be a powerful singer anyway, and Scarpelli's horse-and-pony show cuts the tension in several difficult portions, especially in the third act. Ben-Atar is the best child actor I have seen so far onstage. He has good voice control, and plays a dangerously large part with a minimum of hamming - very professional.

Lastly, as the "Lesbian friends next door" in Act II, Shannon Polly, JE '97, and Katie O'Shaughnessy, ES '98, play wonderfully off each other as internist and caterer. Polly fumes over the lowering AIDS epidemic as O'Shaughnessy bops away with her floral leotards and "nouvelle kosher cuisine."

I was pleasantly surprised with the opening night's sound quality and balance. Kai Harada, SY '98, seems to have got things together and cut feedback to a minimum. (In general, the performance is good enough that one can not only appreciate the actors' singing pianissimo, but understand their diction as well.) The set, by Irene Kang, BK '96, closely follows that of the Broadway production - minimalist, with a few bright-colored set pieces in which characters brood as others sing, and suggestive of the difficulties involved in "simple" desires and solutions. Chess pieces and chess tables make symbolic points as the players needle one another and themselves. Miriam Crowe, CC '96, following Cronin's ban on blackouts, uses subtle purples and front-mounted, diffuse spotlight to blend the characters in a visual field, just as they blend in the social one. On that score, Ashley Cimini, TD '95, decks everyone out in '80s gems. Gersick and Bahar match in white-denimed glory in the first act, precisely when they get along the worst. And, a selection of slides provides a nice backdrop at times, although I doubt even gay men would put up the peculiar Mapplethorpe compilation that graces Marvin and Whizzer's bedroom.

A last complaint one could lodge against the show is that the ending progression might be a bit heavy-handed. Although the last image is extremely poignant, there is a tragic sequence just before it that tears one in half by pitting sight versus sound, so to speak. The sad fact is that the ending juxtapositions of Falsettos are true to life. Their focus on the social, rather than the individual, effects of "The Plague" makes their expression sharper than in comparable pieces. Still, it is a happy ending in that the players are ultimately pawns of the world and not each other, and it is one that left me completely satisfied with the performance.

Copyright 1995, The Yale Herald, Inc. All rights reserved.

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