Four Jews (well, Five Jews) in a Theatre, Bitching (and Singing)

Occasionally, I pick up cast albums on the strength of the composer or other recommendations. After listening to the albums, I get curious as to the storyline of the full show. When these shows then turn up on my theatre-scope, I go see them. Adding Machine“, back in February, was an example of this. I ended up not loving that show, but at least I understood it. Last night was another example of this phenomemon: we went to see the inagural production of the Third Street Theatre in West LA: William Finn’s “Falsettos.

Falsettos” is really two parts of a three part trilogy of one-act musicals written by William Finn (it premiered on Broadway in 1992). The first part of the trilogy (which is not in “Falsettos“) is “In Trousers“, which introduces us to the main character, Marvin, and his discovery that he prefers men to women. The two parts of “Falsettos ” take place after this: Marvin has just divorced his wife, Trina, and has become involved with Whizzer. The first act, “March of the Falsettos“, addresses the desire of Marvin to have a tight-knit family of Marvin, his lover Whizzer, his ex-wife Trina, his son Jason (age 11), and their psychologist (and Trina’s eventual husband), Mendel. This act explores the impact of Marvin’s relationships on those around him, ending up with Trina in a somewhat happy relationship with Mendel, Jason reconciled with his dad, and Marvin and Whizzer split. The second act is the last part of the trilogy, “Falsettoland“. It deals with Jason’s Bar Mitzvah under the Marvin being reconciled with Whizzer, and the shadow of Whizzer coming down with AIDS and eventually dying.

Neither of these are the happiest of subjects, and William Finn’s sung-through music provides opportunity after opportunity to explore all the angst. Unlike “Spelling Bee” or “New Brain“, the music isn’t particularly memorable or uplifting. So overall, we walked out of the musical with an “eh” reaction to the book: it wasn’t quite as incomprehensible as “Adding Machine“, but it wasn’t particularly a wow either. That’s not to say there aren’t some good songs. I’ve always like the opening of both acts: “Four Jews in a Room Bitching”, which opens “March of the Falsettos” and “Welcome to Falsettoland” which opens “Falsettoland“. March (Act I) also contains the wonderful “I’m Breaking Down” (originally in In Trousers): this is a comic delight that Trina sings while making some god-awful baked contraption. The visual gags alone are a delight. Falsettoland” (Act II) has a few good numbers as well, in particular, “Watching Jason (Play Baseball)”, where the characters bemoan how Jewish boys can’t play baseball, and “Everyone Hates Their Parents” where Mendel and Jason sing about how teens always hate their parents as teenagers, but when they are older, they hate them less, and that when they have kids, their kids will hate them. As the father of a teen who is in this stage, all I can say is “how true!”. Lastly, Marvin’s haunting last number, “What Would I Do?”, is just wonderful: it poses the question of what Marvin’s life would be had Whizzer not been it in. It is a suitable capstone to the piece, showing the value of love and friendship.

Aside from the story problems (which are beyond the theatre’s control), this production was excellent, with an extremely strong cast, good direction, and pretty good technicals. Before I discuss the actors, I’d like to give particular kudos to the director and choreographer. The stage was a mostly bare white expense with a white door; Richard Israel (an excellent local musical director) used this very effectively. He brought out the emotions and the characters from the actors, and made these people believable characters. John Todd‘s choreography was excellent: the movement was powerful and precise. I noticed this especially in the number introducing us to Marvin and Whizzer—the dancing was just “wow“! But it also came through in the general fluid movements throughout the show.

The acting was top rate, with many folks we had seen before. All were excellent. Strong singers, Strong dancers. It’s hard to single any particular member out, as they were such a strong ensemble. In the lead positions were Jesse Einstein as Marvin and Richard Hellstern as Whizzer. Both were strong: Marvin came across as suitably neurotic; even better was Hellstern’s Whizzer, especially in the Falsettoland section, where he came across as decimated from AIDS. A remarkable transformation. In the secondary tier (although they are equally leads) were Chip Phillipsæ as Mendel, Major Curdaæ as Jason, and Lani Shipmanæ as Trina. I was particularly taken with Shipman’s Trina, who was a comic delight, wonderful to look at, wonderfully danced and performed. Phillips was fun as Mendel, and Curda brought at child’s playfullness to Jason. Rounding out the cast were Kim Reedæ as Charlotte and Wendy Rosoffæ as Cordelia. These two played the lesbian next-door neighbors who cater the Bar Mitzvah; Charlotte also happens to be Whizzer’s doctor. These two were also fun to watch, and made quite a believable couple. All in all, this was just a great cast.
[æ denotes members of æ Actors Equity ]

Music was provided by the onstage “teeny tiny band” under the direction of Gregory Nabours, who has done music for a number of shows we have enjoyed. Supporting Nabours (who was playing keyboards) was Brian Morales on reeds, and Brian Cannady on drums.

Turning to the technical… Kurt Boetcher‘s set was simple and white: a white back wall, a white door, white boxes, white beds, white tables. This highlighted the actors and allowed them to create the story in an effective manner. Jessica Olson’s costumes were wonderful and captured the late 1970s/early 1980s well—I particularly found myself drawn to the browns worn by Shipman and Phillips. The lighting by Lisa D. Katz was effective and unobtrusive. If I had any complaints on the technical side, it was with the sound design of Ric Perez-Selsky: the actors were over-amplified, making the sound muddy. This was a small enough theatre that the micing might not even have been necessary. Nicholas Acciani was the property master, and likely had his hands full with all the chess pieces, cooking pieces, and chairs flying everywhere. Faryl Saar was the Stage Manager.

Falsettos” continues at the Third Street Theatre until October 16, 2011. Tickets are available through ShowClix; we got ours through Goldstar Events.

Dining Notes. Before the show, we hit Chili Addiction on La Cienega just N of Beverly, near the Coronet where we saw Tick Tick Boom ages ago. It’s a come-back. Gluten-free food (including buns and macaroni), home-made chili, home-made ice cream, prime rib burgers, and tasty sausage and hot dogs. I got the chili-cheese hot dog (with the prime-rib chili); next time I’d like to try the burger with chili. Their salads looked great as well.

Upcoming Theatre, Concerts, and Dance: Our theatre calendar is filling up nicely. Next week sees us back at the REP for “Laughter on the 23rd Floor on September 24. We then enter October, which starts with “Shooting Star” at the Colony Theatre on October 1. The following Saturday is taken with Yom Kippur, but we might do something on Sunday, 10/9—in particular, I’m watching for tickets for Boomermania at the NoHo arts center (currently, tickets are up on Goldstar only through 10/2) or , “Kvetch” at the Whitefire (again, tickets are up on Goldstar only through 10/2). The third weekend of October brings “Annie” at Cabrillo Music Theatre on October 22. The last weekend of October brings “Victor Victoria” at the Malibu Stage Company on Saturday; Sunday is being held for “Come Fly Away” at the Pantages (pending ticketing). November will start with The Robber Bridegroom” at ICT on November 5. It will also bring “Day Out With Thomas” at Orange Empire (We’re working Veterans Day, but we’re not sure about the weekend yet). It may also bring “Riverdance” at the Pantages (held for November 20, pending ticketing), and “Bring It On” at the Ahmanson (held for November 25, pending ticketing, hottix on sale October 4). Thanksgiving weekend also brings the last show of the REP season, “The Graduate”, on Saturday November 26. Also of potential interest, if time is available, are “A Sentimental Journey: The Story of Doris Day” at the El Portal (Nov 2-20) and “Don’t Hug Me, I’m Pregnant” at the Secret Rose (9/30-11/20). The first weekend of December is lost preparing for ACSAC, although I might squeeze in something on Saturday. The next weekend is busy, with a Mens Club Shabbat in the morning, and Travels with my Aunt” at the Colony Theatre in the evening. The remainder of December is unscheduled, but I’m sure we’ll fill things in for Winter Break. Of course, there is the de rigueur movie and Chinese food on Christmas day. As always, open dates are subject to be filled in with productions that have yet to appear on the RADAR of Goldstar or LA Stage Alliance.