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The cast of Falsettos
(Photo © T. Charles Erickson)
Quick, name a through-sung show that is considerably greater in quality than the sum of its music and lyrics. If you thought "Falsettos," I have to agree with you. Though William Finn's score for that show boasts any number of delightful melodies and rhythms, it also contains a fair amount of undistinguished filler. And though Finn's lyrics are alternately touching ("We laugh, we fumble, we take it day by day") and very funny ("I'm up to my ass / In a kosher morass"), he's not above using weirdly modified versions of certain words and phrases in order to make them fit his music -- e.g., "pathetical" instead of "pathetic," "disasterous" instead of "disastrous," "that be" instead of "that would be." Still, Falsettos -- which has a book by Finn and James Lapine -- is so full of heart that its flaws matter little in the long run, as the current Huntington Theatre Company production reminds us.

The show is a full-length combination of two related one-act musicals by Finn, March of the Falsettos and Falsettoland, plus some elements of In Trousers, the one-act that began what has come to be known as "the Marvin trilogy." The central character is (you guessed it!) Marvin, a thirtysomething, would-be mensch who hopes to maintain "a tight-knit family" even though he has left his wife for a male lover...and his wife subsequently takes up with their psychiatrist...and his lover subsequently leaves him...and so on.

The Huntington's first-rate production is marred by the miscasting of Geoffrey Nauffts as Marvin. Nauffts was absolutely terrific in every other show in which I've seen him -- including A Few Good Men, Snakebit, and June Moon -- but he's just not right for this role: Whereas Marvin is supposed to be a neurotic, wired, rather stereotypical New York Jew, Nauffts comes across as a mellow, low-maintenance gentile from a small town somewhere. (I have no idea of the actor's true ethnicity, religion, or place of origin, but the point is that in terms of accent, body language, etc. he simply doesn't fit the part in the way that Michael Rupert -- and, presumably, Mandy Patinkin -- did.) It should be noted that Nauffts was cast just before rehearsals began, as a replacement for Steven Skybell; the odds were against director Daniel Goldstein and his colleagues finding someone who was perfect for the role on such short notice. Still, Nauffts is a gifted, charming actor with a lovely singing voice, so it's not at all unpleasant to watch and listen to him play Marvin despite his miscasting.

Happily, the rest of the company is aces in terms of both innate talent and suitability to their roles. Though Marvin is, as noted above, the central character of Falsettos, one could argue that the show is just as much the story of Marvin's son, Jason -- especially Act II (i.e., Falsettoland), which largely concerns the preparations for the boy's bar mitzvah. Jacob Brandt, a seventh grade student from Newton, Massachusetts, is the ideal Jason: funny and poignant by turns, with a strong, expressive, beautiful singing voice. His rendition of "My Father's a Homo" is definitely a high point of the evening.

Also ideal are Romain Frugé as Whizzer, Marvin's lover, whose loss to AIDS is as heartbreaking in this production as ever; Steve Routman as Mendel, a psychiatrist who has his own fair share of issues; and Anne L. Nathan and Kate Baldwin as "the lesbians from next door." Special mention must be made of Linda Mugleston: Her wonderfully three-dimensional characterization of Marvin's wife Trina more than withstands comparison to such previous exponents of the role as Faith Prince, Barbara Walsh, and Randy Graff. Mugleston's performance of "I'm Breaking Down," sung while baking a "banana carrot surprise," is a tour de force.

The show is even better directed (by Goldstein), choreographed (by Seán Curran), and designed than the fine 1992 Broadway production. Costume designer Miguel Angel Huidor's blue suits for the "March of the Falsettos" number are priceless, and lighting designer Donald Holder always manages to keep the audience's attention focused where it's supposed to be -- no small task in a show that has so many characters in near-constant motion, with more than one locale often represented simultaneously on stage.

Set designer David Korins helps to create a marvelous "parting of the Red Sea" for the Act I opener "Four Jews in a Room Bitching" and an equally imaginative bit at the top of Act II, keying us in to the year of the action by having the performers push huge set pieces representing the numbers 1, 9, 8, and 1 around the stage. Korins' only questionable idea is to reveal, in the closing moments of the show, a backdrop depicting the Manhattan skyline circa 1981 -- complete with the World Trade Center towers. The intention was probably to make a point about Marvin and his nearest and dearest being part of a larger community of foible-filled folks; unfortunately, the image of the WTC pulls the audience out of the story just as it reaches its climax, and I imagine that this goes for Bostonians almost as much as New Yorkers. But this and Geoffrey Nauffts' miscasting are rare missteps in a production of Falsettos that also has musical director Michael Friedman to thank profusely for its excellence.

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