FALSETTOS, William Finn and James Lapine’s “very Jewish, very gay” 1992 Tony Award winner, had been made unavailable for the British stage after a London production met with opposition over a lack of authenticity and accuracy.
However, negotiations spanning two years have paid off for “art with a point” York company Black Sheep Theatre Productions, whose director, Matthew Clare, has acquired exclusive UK rights to present the off-Broadway hit.
It would be good to see such persistence rewarded at the box office, but York theatregoers’ resistance to try out unfamiliar works is long established. Nevertheless, the support from Wednesday’s audience was admirably vocal from start to finish.
Falsettos pairs 1981’s March Of The Falsettos, a humorous study of men’s immaturity, with 1990’s Falsettoland, a graver piece penned in reaction to the devastating impact of the Aids epidemic on New York’s gay community.
In 1979, New Yorker Marvin (Chris Mooney) leaves his wife Trina (Nicola Holliday) and son Jason (Matthew Warry, aged 13) to live with Whizzer (Dan Crawfurd-Porter), his younger lover. They have known each other for nine months, says Whizzer; ten, insists the older, more hooked Marvin. They are arguing already.
Naively, Marvin expects to retain a tight-knit family. A subject he has discussed with his psychiatrist, the neurotic, insomniac Mendel (James Robert Ball), who in turn becomes a listening ear for latest client Trina. So much so, they marry, setting up the family unit Marvin had envisaged.
All this is expressed in song in a sung-through musical full of Sondheim emotional truths and vexatious Woody Allen humour (especially in Ball’s Mendel). All have their say, not only Marvin and the fast-exiting, exasperated Whizzer, but Trina and Jason too. Mendel listens and listens, cross-legged and looking as awkward as the conversations.
On opening night, sound balance favoured band over voice in this first act, meaning not everything was clear to the ear, for all the heart-felt, often beautiful singing. Such a hindrance to comprehending fully what was going on was detrimental to the show’s impact at this juncture, and the standalone March Of The Falsettos number in luminous white only added to that sense of bafflement.
Ollie Kingston’s choreography was fun here, but that scene came and went like a ghost. Such are the limitations of a sung-through structure, where more narrative would be helpful.
Post-interval, frustration vanishes. The voices can be heard far better; the singing is more dramatic; the songs are superior, as two storylines play out two years later in 1981: Jason’s preparation for his bar mitzvah and Whizzer’s reunion with Marvin under the spreading cloud of Aids.
Into the story, and very welcome too, come Marvin and Whizzer’s lesbian neighbours, Dr Charlotte (Helen Spencer), struggling with the rising tide of Aids patients, and girlfriend Cordelia (Rachel Higgs), forever cooking up another nibble.
Just as Marvin and his family learn to grow up, so Falsettoland is a far more mature piece than March Of The Falsettos. It is better balanced too with the presence of Charlotte and Cordelia being all important. Spencer brings gravitas; Higgs, puppyish devotion, amid the “hospital bed humour”.
Performances all round settle down as the night progresses to match the high quality of the singing. Ball’s Mendel is the comic driving force; Jarry delights as Jason, being pulled hither and thither but remaining single-minded too; Holliday’s resolute Trina handles the big ballads with aplomb.
In a heightened drama without conventional heroes and villains, the gay characters of Marvin and Whizzer are depicted with three-dimensional complexity, devoid of any stereotyping. They play chess, they play squash, they bicker, they learn, their love blossoms, and in turn the stage chemistry of Mooney and Crawfurd-Porter grows too.
Staging Falsettos has been a passion project for Matthew Clare, who leads his four-piece band with suitable conviction from the keyboards, while Kingston’s choreography is alive to both humour and dramatic effect and the building-block set design is practical and amusingly adaptable.
Art with a point? Yes, indeed. Black Sheep Theatre Productions and the JoRo are to be commended for bringing Falsettos to York’s attention. The more variety there is to the city’s theatre portfolio, the better, when playing safe would be the easier path.
Black Sheep Theatre Productions perform Falsettos at 7.30pm tonight and tomorrow; 2.30pm and 7.30pm, tomorrow. Box office: 01904 501935 or josephrowntreetheatre.co.uk.