A tuneful canter through three years of atypical family life and New York Jewish angst
With opening number ‘Four Jews in a Room Bitching’ and two of 35 songs mentioning bar mitzvah in the title, it's fair to say that Falsettos has a firm footing in Jewish culture. Sondheim collaborator James Lapine is responsible for the book and his own collaborator of choice, William Finn, is behind the music and lyrics. It is the angst during the run up to said bar mitzvah that is the focus for an exhaustive anatomy of an alternative family set-up.
Husband and father Marvin wants it all – male lover Whizzer, as well as ex-wife Trina, mother of the adolescent son Jason, whose parenting he’s determined to share. This is New York, so of course there’s a family shrink too. And sweet-natured psychiatrist Mendel actually gets to be part of the family, as Trina’s new husband and Jason’s stepdad. This version of Falsettos premiered in 1992 and is set in late-70s/early-80s New York, but is right on message today.
When we first meet those bitching Jews, Jason is 10 years old. So the scene is set for three years of squabbling and agonised introspection from this bunch of extroverts. A lot of it is very funny, but because it's through-sung (for 240 minutes) it feels a bit relentless. There are almost no quiet moments, as the excellent cast give their all at full pitch.
Originally three one-act musicals set over three years, Falsettos has morphed into the version receiving its European premiere here. The second half feels like a different, fresher piece of work, perhaps thanks to the introduction of another ‘alternative family’. Marvin’s sunny neighbours, Charlotte and Cordelia, are in a more settled, easy-going relationship. Charlotte is a physician, Cordelia a (non-Jewish) caterer specialising in kosher cuisine. With Jason’s bar mitzvah now imminent, Cordelia has a part to play; and on a more sombre and tragic note, as Aids begins to take its toll, Charlotte too proves what good neighbours are all about.
Laura Pitt-Pulford (Little Miss Sunshine, another Lapine and Finn production) has a glorious voice, which suits Trina’s huge emotional range. Daniel Boys goes for the complications and contradictions in Marvin, not afraid to be unsympathetic and selfish. Oliver Savile succeeds in making Whizzer much more than the representative waspish gay New Yorker, while Joel Montague is warm and empathetic as Mendel, an authentic go-to psychiatrist who amply fills the shoes of second husband and stepdad. George Kennedy, one of four young actors playing Jason, perfectly captures his conflicting, maturing emotions. As Charlotte and Cordelia, Gemma Knight-Jones and Natasha J Barnes bring a fresh vitality to the stage after the interval.
Director/choreographer Tara Overfield-Wilkinson marshals this bunch of disparate New Yorkers, both as individuals and in a tight ensemble, on PJ McEvoy’s busy, detailed set, with walls of larger-than-life portrait frames, filled by cast members and projections as required. Those 35 songs, plus reprises, are a lot to get through, even in a through-sung show. It may leave its audience (though impressively not its cast) breathless, but there's no doubt that most were equally exhilarated.
By Judi Herman
Photos by The Standout Company
Falsettos runs until Saturday 23 November. 7.30pm, 2.30pm (Thu & Sat only). From £19.50. The Other Palace, SW1E 5JA. www.theotherpalace.co.uk