Friday, April 26, 2013

Review: (Toronto) Falsettos

Eric Morin, Stephen Patterson. Photography: Joanna Akyol

The Joyful Dysfunctions of a Modern Family
by Christian Baines
Falsettos is possibly one of the most disarming ‘downer’ shows out there. All the more disarming for how bloody funny it is, pulled off in that absurdist tone that makes any William Finn musical such a treat. Yes, it sews together the latter two parts of a trilogy and the stitching occasionally shows. But somehow, that unevenness only adds to the credibility of what was at the time, a pretty brave show about the kinds of trials many New Yorkers had recently endured. The first act, March of the Falsettos, dealt with the changing concept of family in America, while the second tackled the AIDS crisis, giving the disease an insidious and appropriately chilling anonymity.
As a result, a great production of the show can be emotionally exhausting for all the right reasons. This production, by Acting Up, doesn’t quite reach that point, but it comes deliciously close. Much of the credit can go to its superb casting choices. Stephen Patterson is the perfect neurotic lynchpin as freshly out-of-the-closet Marvin. Glynis Ranney finds the ideal balance between high camp and vulnerability as his wife Trina. And as their son Jason, young Michael Levinson commands the stage with as much, if not even more presence than his adult co-stars. Then there’s Eric ‘jaws off the floor please’ Morin, who hits all the right marks as smarmy-turned-sympathetic muscle boy Whizzer. He handles the show’s radical shifts in tone with grace and conviction. He also oozes confidence – as Whizzer should, though truthfully, I would have liked to see him show a touch more vulnerability in Act 2. It’s there, but it’s a still a bit guarded, and letting it out some more would really have lit the necessary fire under Finn’s terrific closing songs.
Exceptionally well performed, artfully choreographed and directed with a healthy willingness to experiment and surprise.

In a show that’s really not about the dance, choreographer Tim French brings some wonderful flourishes to the earlier numbers that really flesh out the relationships between these characters. Patterson and Morin in particular seem so at ease here, delighting in muddling the lines between desire and torment. I had hoped this would set the tone for movement throughout the show, but no such luck. Director Robert McQueen certainly keeps his cast moving, but there’s an over-reliance on indication that kind of screams ‘What do I do with my hands?’ It’s the kind of minor quibble that just gets maddening after about an hour. A few key plot progressions, particularly towards the show’s end, seem to run over each other as well, undercutting their impact. On the other hand, some of McQueen’s choices bring to life certain parts of the show that are particularly difficult to land. The chess game in Act 1, for instance, now packs a subtle, toxic flippancy that really capitalizes on Whizzer’s shifting attitude towards Marvin.
The odd flaw notwithstanding, this production of Falsettos is a joy to watch. Exceptionally well performed, artfully choreographed and directed with a healthy willingness to experiment and surprise. It’s also hilarious and horrifying, by turns. But if you weren’t expecting that from the outset, you’ve probably never spent an evening with the music of Mr Finn. Falsettos is a dark, yet rich celebration of life and all its dysfunctions. It’s an occasion you don’t want to miss.

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