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The George Street Playhouse offers a fine production of the William Finn-James Lapine musical about family, AIDS, and what it truly means to be a man. logo
Top: Michael Winther, Anne L. Nathan, Sarah Litzsinger
Bottom: Mark Nelson, Liz Larsen in Falsettos
(© T Charles Erickson)
The first of many intriguing touches in the George Street Playhouse production of Falsettos is on view as the audience enters the theater. Although the stage floor, the main set unit, and even the furniture sport Keith Haring-like designs that harken back to the artwork for the original Broadway production of this William Finn-James Lapine musical, lighting designer Christopher J. Bailey has drawn our attention to a Colonial-style dollhouse placed center stage. It presumably represents the home in which central character Marvin lives with his wife Trina and son Jason when he's not cohabitating with his male lover, Whizzer.

Maybe it's big city solipsism at work, but I always assumed that Falsettos -- with its neurotic, Jewish protagonist, at least three characters in therapy, and a lesbian couple living next door -- was set in Manhattan. Quick research reveals that an NYC setting wasn't specified for the Broadway show or its Off-Broadway predecessors. It's good to be reminded that such people and issues exist in suburbia; and how nice it is that the reminder comes from a fine production of this musical about family, AIDS, and what it truly means to be a man.

Falsettos is a prime theatrical example of how the whole can be much greater than the sum of its parts. Some of Finn's music is undistinguished or derivative, while his lyrics are frequently clunky and ungrammatical; but there are several catchy melodies, skillfully wrought ensemble numbers, and deft turns of phrase to balance the pedestrian passages. When the show is well directed and performed, its pluses definitely outweigh its minuses, and this is the case with David Saint's staging.

The plus/minus thing also applies to Michael Winther's portrayal of Marvin. With his seemingly white-bread ethnicity and his basically calm, centered stage persona, this talented performer is far from perfect for the assignment. Whereas such previous Marvins as Michael Rupert and Mandy Patinkin naturally projected a certain brand of Jewish-American angst that's written into the role, Winther never fully convinces in this respect. But he's an intelligent, sensitive actor and, with his uncommonly lovely voice, he makes something special of the show's best songs -- most notably the tender "Father to Son," which ends the first act.

The other cast members hew much more closely to type. Colin Hanlon is wonderful as the ill-fated golden boy Whizzer -- charming and casually sexy at first, heartbreaking as the character succumbs to AIDS, and singing beautifully throughout. As bar mitzvah boy Jason, Malcolm Morano has some pitch problems but is terrific in every other way.

Liz Larsen shines as Trina, who's "holding to the ground as the ground keeps shifting." Mark Nelson as her second husband, Mendel the shrink, is more low-key but no less amusing than the great Chip Zien, who played the part on and off Broadway. Anne L. Nathan and Sarah Litzsinger have chemistry for days as loving neighbors Dr. Charlotte and Cordelia, plus they harmonize gorgeously. (Joshua Salzman is the show's musical director.)

Aside from the features noted above, Beowulf Boritt's set includes a false proscenium frame studded with chaser lights, judiciously used, and a series of panels that rotate to reveal brightly colored images ranging from a '60s-style LOVE logo to a Rorshach blot to scenes of domestic bliss.

One of the panels displays a caricature of Ronald Reagan that looms over the stage for most of Act II, as if to silently damn that benighted "leader" for his lack of response to the AIDS crisis. While Falsettos is not about accusation, this image is welcome in giving a subtle yet sharp edge to a generally excellent, emotionally honest production.

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