Sunday, September 24, 2023

"Falsettos" by Theater Latte Da at the Ritz Theater

I fell in love with the musical Falsettos, which premiered on Broadway in 1992, when I saw a filmed version of the 2016 revival at a movie theater. The gorgeous and complex score, along with this love story about a messy and complex family, really appealed to me. The national tour came to the Ordway in 2019, and I loved it even more live (natch). At the time I wrote, "I'm hoping that the success of this revival leads to a local production or two in the coming years; I'd love to see some of my #TCTheater faves tackle these rich roles, perhaps with a staging of this intimate story that's more intimate." I didn't have to wait too long for my wish to come true, and there's no theater I'd rather see take on this gem of a musical than Theater Latte Da (although the NE Minneapolis community theater Morris Park Players beat them to it with a lovely and heartfelt production a year and a half ago). This is the first Latte Da show since the departure of founding Artistic Director Peter Rothstein (who likely had a hand in planning the season before beginning his new job at Asolo Rep*), and the first under the reign of new Artistic Director Justin Lucero. I'm happy to report that this production of Falsettos is every bit the Theater Latte Da we know and love - beautiful and relevant storytelling wrapped up in gorgeous music, a brilliant and mostly local cast, with impeccable attention to detail in every facet of design and creation. Falsettos runs through November 5, but don't snooze on getting tickets.

a tight-knit family (Serena Brook, Eric Morris, Sasha Andreev,
Sam Mandell, and Max Wojtanowicz, photo by Dan Norman)
The musical we now know as Falsettos began as a trio of one-act musicals with music by William Finn. After all three played off-Broadway, the latter two (with book co-written by frequent Sondheim collaborator James Lapine) were combined to form the full-length musical Falsettos, which premiered on Broadway in 1992, winning Tonys for best score and book. The first act introduces the "tight-knit" but unconventional family consisting of Marvin, his wife Trina, their son Jason, Marvin's lover Whizzer, and Marvin's psychiatrist Mendel, who eventually marries Trina. There's a lot of drama, but a lot of love too as they try to figure out how to be a family. The second act includes new characters Dr. Charlotte and Cordelia, the lesbians next door. It's a story about gay men in the early '80s in NYC, so you can guess where this is going, and where the doctor comes in. This little family has to deal with AIDS and Jason's bar mitzvah, both of which are traumatic experiences that only serve to bond them tighter. What I love about this story is that it's not just a story of romantic love (although Marvin and Whizzer's love is passionate, messy, and real), but also of the love of parent and child, of co-parents who are no longer together but still forge a life together, of friends, neighbors, community. They say you can't choose your family, but this family chose each other.**

every good American musical needs a baseball scene
(photo by Dan Norman)
Falsettos is not your typical Broadway musical (which is a good thing in my book) for several reasons. There are only seven actors (five in the first half of the story), no chorus line, and no big dance numbers. And it's entirely sung-through, with a score that is brilliant both lyrically and musically, and harmonies that are so beautiful they break your heart. This isn't the typical dialogue - song with verses and chorus - applause break - repeat kind of musical. The constant singing keeps the emotions heightened, and there are a lot of emotions. It's funny, painful, awkward, poignant, and heart-breaking. All of these characters are so real and human that you can't help but feel for them despite their flaws.**

Although not based in the Twin Cities, Meredith McDonough has directed a number of shows in town, most recently the delightful world premiere of Kate Hamill's Emma at the Guthrie last summer. Under her leadership, this show is full of heart and humor, with a nice balance between the zaniness (my friend asked me "what's up with that 'March of the Falsettos' number" and I had no response) and poignant moments. It's an emotional journey full of highs and lows, and the audience is happy to go along for the ride, with definitely a more intimate feeling in the Ritz than a larger theater.

Trina is breaking down (Serena Brook, photo by Dan Norman)
This cast is truly perfection. I've seen most of them many times on stages around town for years, and it was such a joy to watch them play these roles that they're so well suited for, that are so complex and full, in a story that is obviously as meaningful to them as it is to the audience. When I heard Theater Latte Da was doing Falsettos, Serena Brook is who I wanted to play Trina, and I wasn't wrong - she's never been better. I didn't want her to play the role just because she's Jewish (although that's an important consideration when casting this piece that begins with a song called "Four Jews in a Room Bitching"), but also because she has a gorgeous voice, that she can also use to great comedic effect (see also Artistry's The Pajama Game), which is more difficult than it sounds. Trina's song "I'm Breaking Down" is a well-known show-stopper, and Serena manages to make it all her own, and be funny and tragic all at the same time, a balance she maintains throughout the show. 

It's a rare occasion when Sasha Andreev doesn't make me cry when he opens his mouth, and this was not one of them. His performance as Marvin is so real and earnest, but also funny, that I felt for him along every step of his journey to a "tight-knit family." Max Wojtanowicz is just lovely as Whizzer, in some ways the emotional heart of the piece - everybody loves Whizzer. Sasha and Max have a great and believable chemistry. As the psychiatrist who falls for his patient's ex, Eric Morris brings his big voice and personality to the role. Sheena Janson Kelley and Sara Masterson bring an honesty and freshness to their second act roles as "the lesbians from next door" (and as anyone who has attended a Musical Mondays or seen their original musical Fruit Fly knows, Sheena and Max are longtime BFFs, adding an extra dimension to their scenes together). Last but not least, high school sophomore and CTC vet Sam Mandell is adorable as Jason, more than holding his own amongst this stellar adult cast. Every member of this cast is a powerhouse singer, but when they sing together in 3- or 4- or more- part harmony - be still my heart!

photo by Dan Norman
The modern set features a large black asymmetrical wall at the back of the stage, with a yellow stair-step section that opens in the second act to reveal the "teeny tiny band" (tiny but fabulous - just bass, percussion, woodwinds, and music director Jason Hansen on piano). Two red doors and a blue section painted on the floor complete the color-block look. Four '70s leather chairs and one ottoman, all on rollers, are put to good use, with a bumper on one end of the stage to bounce off of. The choreography includes lots of chair dancing, as well as natural, fun, real-people dancing (as opposed to Broadway high-kicks kind of dancing). The time period is late '70s / early '80s, reflected in the colorful and patterned period costumes - an endless parade of suits and sweaters and dresses and workout wear. There are also come cool lighting effects to illuminate the stair-step wall section, as well as a clever way to indicate the passage of time. (Scenic design by Mina Kinukawa, choreography by Emily Michaels King, costume design by Rich Hamson, lighting design by Grant E. Merges.)

Lyric Arts' A Chorus Line was the first must-see musical of the 2023-2024 season, a fan-freakin-tastic production of an iconic musical theater classic. Falsettos is the second must-see musical of the season, and while it may not have the name recognition or as many awards as A Chorus Line, it's every bit as ingenius in its use of music-theater to tell a meaningful and engaging story. A story about love, family, loss, the early days of the AIDS crisis, and community. A story that is, as always at Theater Latte Da, gorgeously told. See this must-see at the Ritz Theater in Northeast Minneapolis through November 5, and get ready for what looks like a season of must-sees, including a return of the new classic holiday show Christmas at the Local, a somehow musicalized Stones in his Pocket, the incredibly moving The Color Purple, and a new adaptation of a classic opera (for more on Latte Da and other theaters' upcoming seasons, listen to episode 2.1 of Twin Cities Theater Chat).

*We were lucky enough to interview Peter on the first ever interview episode of the Twin Cities Theater Bloggers' podcast "Twin Cities Theater Chat." You can listen to it here.
**Some text borrowed from my review of the 2019 Broadway tour.