Can there be too much of a good thing? In the case of the 1992 musical “Falsettos,” the answer is a qualified yes. The show’s greatest asset, not very surprisingly, is the music (songs by William Finn). Its biggest drawback, however, isn’t really that there’s too much of it, but that there’s too little of anything else in the way of a traditional script (co-written by Finn and James Lapine).
For well over half of artistic director Freddie Ashley’s Actor’s Express staging, the entirely sung-through aspect to “Falsettos” is surely lilting, and adroitly performed by a talented ensemble of vocalists. But as the plot eventually segues from a more whimsical look at romantic and familial relationships to more solemn considerations about life and death, it’s increasingly problematic that you can count on one hand the number of spoken words of dialogue in the show.
There are some things in a play that can’t be sufficiently captured or conveyed with a fleeting song lyric, situations that demand legitimate acting, above and beyond an undeniable flair for singing. Through no fault of Ashley or his cast, Finn’s basic concept routinely restricts their dramatic options in portraying the deeper motivations and deepest emotions of the characters.
When a young gay man is diagnosed with a mysterious disease that will later be known as AIDS, or when a Jewish boy struggles with his faith and whether to even observe his bar mitzvah, a musical interlude doesn’t fully cut it. Also frustrating to a story that’s exclusively told through songs is the quick tempo to a lot of them–never mind whenever several characters are overlapping lyrics all at once–which occasionally obscures what they’re essentially “saying.”
The action spans from 1979 to 1981, involving a divorced husband and father named Marvin (Craig Waldrip); his ex-wife Trina (Jessica De Maria); their adolescent son Jason (Alex Newberg on opening night, alternating performances with Vinny Montague); an amiable family therapist, Mendel (Ben Thorpe); Marvin’s new gay lover, Whizzer (Jordan Dell Harris); and, almost as an afterthought, an extraneous couple of lesbian neighbors (Kylie Brown, Kandice Arrington).
Under the all-singing circumstances, the characterizations tend to seem a bit sketchy, rather than wholly dimensional. The brightest exception is Thorpe, whose scene-stealing turn as the smitten shrink is a pure delight. The handsome Harris also excels as that ill-fated lover. And kudos, as well, to Newberg; unlike many child actors, who can memorize their lines and recite them by rote, yet often lack the life experience or theatrical expertise to invest them with a lot of conviction or meaning, he’s a genuine and natural stage presence.
Then again, in strictly musical terms, every member of Ashley’s company gets an opportunity to shine in a half-dozen or so song highlights, accompanied by music director Alli Lingenfelter and a four-piece band: the funny “Four Jews in a Room Bitching” and the fantastical “March of the Falsettos” (both performed by Waldrip, Harris, Thorpe and Newberg); “The Baseball Game” (sung by all the adults); rousing solos by De Maria (“I’m Breaking Down”) and Harris (“You Gotta Die Sometime”); and, especially, Waldrip’s lovely “What More Can I Say?”
The production values are curiously unremarkable, if not downright awkward. James V. Ogden’s minimal scenic design features a passageway on its upper level that’s so low that everyone (including the pint-sized Newberg) has to crouch simply to enter and exit through it. And costume designer Alan Yeong’s idea of a racquetball outfit for Whizzer is utterly ludicrous.
While the music in the Express’ “Falsettos” may frequently soar, the show rarely looks–or ultimately feels–quite as good or as moving as it sounds.
Through April 28. 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays; 2 p.m. Sundays. $20-$40. Actor’s Express (at King Plow Arts Center), 887 W. Marietta St. NW, Atlanta. 404-607-7469. actors-express.com.
Bottom line: Generally lilting, despite its flawed concept.
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