“Falsettos,” a pop-opera with music and lyrics by William Finn and book by William Finn and James Lapine, is Rep Stage’s swan song at Howard Community College. It is directed and choreographed by Joseph W. Ritsch, Producing Artistic Director of Rep Stage. It was also the very first musical Rep Stage produced 29 years ago.
The concept of this musical started off-Broadway with a couple of one-act musicals, “March of the Falsettos” (1981), and then “Falsettoland.” (1990). “Falsettos” premiered on Broadway in 1992 and was nominated for seven Tony Awards, winning for Best Book and Best Original Score. It was revived on Broadway in 2016 and adapted for “PBS Live from Lincoln Center” in 2017.
The plot follows Marvin (Jake Loewenthal) who just left his wife for Whizzer (Davon Williams), a gay man. Marvin and his ex-wife, Trina (Sarah Corey) have a twelve-year-old son, Jason (Grayden Goldman). Marvin is in therapy with Mendel (Michael Perrie, Jr.), a shrink who falls in love with Trina. The first act deals with Marvin’s relationship with Trina; Trina’s emotions after being left for a man by Marvin; Trina and Mendel’s new relationship; Marvin and Whizzer’s tenuous relationship; and finally, how Jason is dealing with all this as he begins puberty.
Ritsch’s direction is both entertaining and compelling…his direction highlights the bittersweet ending…very thoughtful production…
The first act was the section written before the AIDS epidemic. It is mostly humorous and clever and talks about family relationships and some very unusual love triangles. The second act starts off upbeat but suddenly turns to darker times—those we all suddenly must deal with in our lives.
In Act II, Jason is now preparing for his Bar Mitzvah and two lesbian neighbors, Dr. Charlotte (Justine “Icy” Moral) and Cordelia (Amber Wood), join in the tale. The plot now starts to deal with the more serious issue of AIDS. We forget how much of a scourge that disease was in the 80s and early 90s.
It was a death sentence. Time has passed and many were either too young to remember or have forgotten. If you want to use a timeline, just think when Magic Johnson was diagnosed with AIDS. No one thought he would survive. Now it has been over 30 years and, happily, Johnson is still living a full life. Arthur Ashe was diagnosed in 1988 and died in 1993.
The LGBTIQA+ community has helped bring forth other societal changes, like same sex marriage, so “Falsettos” is a history lesson in some ways. However, with all the new anti-LGBTIQA+ sentiment in this country, it makes us realize how tenuous these changes can be.
Marvin is, perhaps, the hardest character to portray in the show. He must be charming but also a bit self-centered. It is not just because he left his wife and son, but also in his relationship to Whizzer who Marvin sees early in their cohabitation as a male-housewife. Marvin, more than the others, must change by the weight of circumstances on his life. Loewenthal captures all that. We manage to like and dislike Marvin just enough in the first act that we are able to empathize with his plight later in the show.
Williams’ portrayal of Whizzer is vibrant, poignant, and sexy. This is exemplified in his songs “The Games I Play” and later “You Gotta Die Sometime.” Corey brings a great deal of energy to Trina. Her version of “I’m Breaking Down” is hilarious. Trina also changes from the housewife to an important support for her ex-husband and her son. Perrie, Jr. keeps Mendel from appearing weak. It is Mendel who actually helps Trina and Jason cope with the turmoil Marvin has created in their lives, and the actor manages that tightrope well.
Goldman, a local middle school student, is quite believable as Jason. He is the glue that holds this dysfunctional family together. A typical pre-teen, Goldman conveys that special warmth needed in the role. I particularly enjoyed the three (Mendel, Jason, and Trina) in “Canceling the Bar Mitzvah” and (joined by Marvin) “Everyone Hates His Parents.”
Moral and Wood are exceptional in their supporting roles. Along with Loewenthal and Williams, they are quite moving in their number “Unlikely Lovers.”
Ritsch’s direction is both entertaining and compelling. The opening number, “Four Jews in a Room Bitching,” is catchy and fun. Later, his direction highlights the bittersweet ending as Marvin and Whizzer sing “What Would I Do.” The music, under the direction of Tiffany Underwood Holmes, kept the pace going and never drowned out the singers.
The set is spectacularly designed by Daniel Ettinger. It’s amazing what he and Ritsch do with five doors and some moveable furniture. Julie Potter’s costumes are both in period and versatile in their simplicity. Coner Mulligan’s lighting design and Adam Mendelson’s sound design mesh perfectly with the set and choreography.
Like the bittersweet ending of this very thoughtful production, Rep Stage’s own ending, after almost thirty years, will be the final curtain of “Falsettos” on May 14, 2023. It is fitting that this musical has come full circle for Rep Stage at HCC. We sadly bid Jospeh W. Ritsch a fond farewell and offer much thanks for the wonderful productions he has brought to this area during his nine years at Rep Stage. Don’t miss this final curtain of this important theatrical company and a chance to see this memorable production.
Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes with one intermission.
Advisory: Recommended for mature audiences.
“Falsettos” runs through May, 14, 2023 presented by Rep Stage at the Studio Theatre in the Horowitz Center Visual and Performing Arts Center, Howard Community College, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway
Columbia, MD 21044. For more information and tickets, the Box Office is open for in-person and over-the-phone ticket purchases (443) 518-1500), Wednesday through Friday from 12-4 p.m. or you can email email@example.com or go online. Masks are encouraged.
Read Susan Brall’s interview with Joseph W. Ritsch on MTG where he discusses his play and Rep Stage’s departure from the local theatre scene.