As an American Jew, living in London, working in theatre, who had never seen Falsettos before this review, I felt a bit of a weight on my shoulders. Falsettos was a 1992 musical hit on Broadway, and since then has been something of an underground classic. Now that it has arrived in the UK, the opportunity for me to get to know Falsettos has the added complexity of reading it through the lens of British theatre. There’s a lot to take in.
William Finn’s plot is complicated, stitched together from his two pieces March of the Falsettos and Falsettoland: Marvin (Daniel Boys) and Trina (Laura Pitt-Pulford) are two New York Jews in 1979 struggling to raise their son Jason (played by Albert Atack on press night), even as Marvin leaves the family for his lover, Whizzer (Oliver Savile). Trina’s coping mechanism is falling in love with her psychiatrist, Mendel (Joel Montague). As time skips to 1981, Jason nears his Bar Mitzvah and the beginning of the AIDS crisis seeps into their lives; the ritual of coming of age suddenly takes on more meaning and responsibility than one Torah portion.
The majority of the show explores the messy emotions of jealousy, insecurity and desire between these couples in a Sondheim-esque way, with deep, sharp insight. Laura Pitt-Pulford gives Trina plenty of wonderful vocal power through a nervous breakdown in ‘I’m Breaking Down’, and Oliver Savile’s Whizzer moves from over-confident and loud to compassionate and softer with heartbreaking ease. Daniel Boys gives Marvin an understated performance which works for the touching scene of father and son at the end of the first act. The ‘lesbians from next door’, Charlotte and Cordelia are played with lovely, charming ease by Gemma Knight-Jones and Natasha J Barnes respectively, but are denied more depth by having less stage time. As a whole, the ensemble feels emotionally held back, and the romantic and sexual chemistry equally restrained, as if digging into the passion and the vulnerability between these characters is too messy for the glossy production.
The production struggles with its own cognitive dissonance: the beautiful, tightly wound, complex lyrics and musical score are let down by a simplistic checkerboard tile set, decorated with clunky white boxes for furniture and projections of generic locations onto cartoonish photo frames for scene changes. The sense of place is lost in the glossy imagery of ‘playing the game’ on a large-scale chessboard, and the dissolution of the nuclear family as the actors move in and out of picture frames. The brightly coloured costumes convey a sense of falseness, but also deny the show of any temporal or cultural specificity.
There is a disconnect with the play’s tone. Granted, it’s a tricky one to navigate: ‘Four Jews in a Room Bitching’ is classic piece of American-Jewish self-aware, self-deprecating humour when performed with a wink and some irony. Instead, the bright Broadway spotlights, the repetitive choreography and the highly energetic cast bring performances that are earnest and exuberant, to the point of hollow naivete. Without a tone of playful, biting self-awareness, rooted in Jewish culture and gay identity, our relationship to these characters and their lives is unclear. Are we laughing with them? At them? What exactly is so funny?
It’s clear that producing this play means doing serious dramaturgical work, not just about Yiddish and Hebrew pronunciation or the significant historical moments of the AIDS crisis in the US in the 1980s, but about Jewish and gay culture as living, breathing experiences. These intersecting identities are the core of the play’s character. Without this dramaturgical work, the Jewish jokes repeatedly fall flat: Trina’s anxiety about her husband’s ex-lover drowns out Mendel’s understated comment that ‘Looking at Whizzer is like eating trayf’; Mendel simultaneously scolds and comforts Jason with a pun on the word and Passover song, ‘Dayenu’: by telling him, ‘Jason, I am muy disgutante / And muy disappointe …. /And me mitzraiyim / Hotzionu / Dayenu’ – his Bar Mitzvah would be ‘dayenu’, enough, but really, enough with everyone’s insidious behavior. And some choreographic and prop choices come across as superficial and naïve: The ‘March of the Falsettos’ choreography is comprised of exaggerated limp wrists – a gesture of caricatured gayness and Jewishness that feels uncomfortable here as part of a naïve movement vocabulary. Similarly, the ‘love is love’ protest signs that Charlotte and Cordelia enter with in the second act are about 20 years too early; they’re a slogan of the 2000’s marriage equality movement, rather than a protest against the US government’s repeated inaction as people died of AIDS.
Most importantly, the poignant finale is deprived of its full emotional punch. Young Jason’s wise and selfless mitzvah of performing his Bar Mitzvah ceremony in Whizzer’s hospital room is the epitome of what it really means to be Jewish. It also shows the sacrifices and losses that defined gay life in the 80s. But with Jason’s tallit haphazardly draped across his shoulders, and the notable absence of a kiddish cup and two candlesticks (even a plastic cup and two small candles would do), the Bar Mitzvah felt more like a birthday party.
Without taking these identities as the roots of the performance, the result is a solid but superficial sweeping gesture, full of outward, visible vibrancy and talent, but internal emptiness.
Falsettos is on at The Other Palace Theatre until 23rd November. More info and tickets here.