Reuben Liversidge

William Finn's hilarious and heartfelt musical receives a disappointing production by StageArt.

Image: The cast of Falsettos.Photo (c) Belinda Strodder.

William Finn and James Lapine’s Falsettos is actually two shows in one. In 1981 Finn wrote March of the Falsettos, a small Off-Broadway musical directed by Lapine about a man called Marvin who comes out of the closest later in life and decides to leave his wife and small son for a younger lover. The story of this fractured family continued in 1990 with Falsettoland, which centered around Marvin’s son Jason’s bar mitzvah with the sinister spectre of the AIDS crises lurking in the background before dramatically altering the course of the characters lives. The two pieces were presented together on Broadway in 1992 as Falsettos and the production went on to win two Tony Awards.

The show quickly gained a strong cult following due to its somewhat daring subject matter (in the early 90’s there were very few major stage productions featuring a gay character in the lead), the quirky yet lovingly drawn characters and Finn’s melodic score and hilarious lyrics. Falsettos is a madcap romp about family, masculinity and the myriad ways love can change our lives. It’s over-the-top, dizzyingly energetic and full of heart, although you wouldn’t know it by watching this rather dull and unsatisfying production.

Director Tyran Parke seems to have taken the best parts of a recent Broadway revival of the show and regurgitated them for this StageArt production. Even the set design, with a cutout New York City skyline, very closely echoes the recent American production. The staging of some musical numbers, such as Trina’s (Sarah Shahinian) show stopping solo ‘I’m Breaking Down,’ is almost identical. If you’ve seen the revival, which is available to stream online, the sense of déjà vu is overwhelming.

The success of any production of Falsettos relies on the cast hitting the ground running from the opening number, grabbing the audience’s attention and never letting it go as they tell this uproarious story through song. On opening night the cast were strangely lacking energy and had very little chemistry. The central relationships never quite rang true and at worst left you wondering why these characters were even together in the first place. The introduction of the “lesbians from next door,” doctor Charlotte (Francesca Arena) and her partner Cordelia (Jenni Little) the caterer, in act two brought some much needed warmth and vitality to the performance but the first half was a bit of a slog.

But the most glaring problem with this production is the lighting. Almost every cue appeared to be late, many actors had to perform in near darkness before awkwardly moving into the light and the audience was mistakenly illuminated a couple of times. I’m sure these errors will be corrected for the reminder of the run, but at the performance I attended it was extremely distracting and irritating for the whole two and a half hours.

Now let’s get to the good stuff. The energy of the whole cast did pick up in the second act and the latter part of the show really packed an emotional punch. Sarah Shahinian is wonderful as Marvin’s long-suffering wife Trina. Her voice is very strong and her performance has a beautiful emotional depth and refreshing sincerity. Nick Simpson-Deeks is delightful as Mendel, singing the role superbly and making the most of his character’s humorous idiosyncrasies. Young Ben Jason-Easton is also great as the irritated son Jason. Musical Director David Butler plays the entire score on a solo piano, a mean feat for any musician, and he succeeds admirably. The costume designs by Meredith Cooney are perfect for the era and thoughtfully tailored to represent each individual character.

I so wanted to like StageArt’s Falsettos. This is a rarely performed piece and with the recent marriage equality vote the timing couldn’t be more perfect for this beautiful story of love and family. Unfortunately, this disappointing production doesn’t do the material justice.

2 stars out of 5

Music & Lyrics by William Finn
Book by William Finn & James Lapine
Directed by Tyran Parke 
Musical Director: David Butler
Featuring Francesca Arena, Bianca Bruce, Riley Flood, Lachie Graham, Ben Jason-Easton, Jenni Little, Sarah Shahinian, Nick Simpson-Deeks, Sam Ward and Don Winsor.

Chapel Off Chapel, Prahran
1-11 February 2018

What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

Reuben Liversidge is based in Melbourne. He has trained in music theatre at the VCA, film and theatre at LaTrobe University, and currently works as Head Talent Agent for the Talent Company of Australia.