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The Rosendale Theatre Collective

Four Jews on a Stage Bitching...The wry brilliance of the musical Falsettos, at the Center for Performing Arts at Rhinebeckby Jay Blotcher

In a 1969 review of the play The Boys in the Band, New York Times theatre critic Clive Barnes offered a precocious but astute observation: he parsed New York wit as “a mixture of Jewish humor and homosexual humor seen through the bottom of a dry martini glass.”

This same heady elixir is at work in the musical Falsettos, playing this month at The Center for Performing Arts at Rhinebeck. The show is simultaneously gay, Jewish and unmistakably Manhattan. The result is not only bracing entertainment but also an unnervingly perceptive window into 1980s New York life.

William Finn’s urban chamber opera offers a spot-on musical meditation on the mixed blessings of relationships, on a par with the classic Sondheim-Furth musical Company. Edgy characterizations meld with a frenetic, tuneful score that shows the seven characters at their lovable worst. In the show's opening song, “Four Jews in a Room Bitching,” the quartet of males winningly declares, “We are manipulating people and we need to know our worst side’s not ignored.” This is chutzpah at its best.

When the musical opened in 1981 at Playwrights Horizon—titled March of the Falsettos—its subject matter was bold even for the times. Neurotic New York Jew Marvin, late to the party, has finally realized he is gay. This means divorcing his wife Trina and taking up with a man named Whizzer. Yet he still hopes to maintain a diplomatic relationship with his ex, not only to assuage his son Jason, but because he still feels there is a place in his life for her. But when therapist Mendel moves in on Trina, Marvin’s utopian dreams are dashed. And thereby hangs a tale which possesses equal relevance today, as witnessed by the recent defeat of same-sex marriage by New York State senators.

Falsettos director Kevin Archambault, 32, has adroitly mounted several challenging pieces at The Center, including Company, Evita and The Who’s Tommy. He discovered Falsettos during the early 1990s as an actor in summer stock. “I fell in love with the music,” he said, referring to the literate and psychologically pitch-perfect lyrics that enliven the Sondheim-worthy score of bittersweet love songs.

Archambault respected the honesty of the show, for Finn's show mercilessly, yet benevolently, underscores the messy emotions that pass for love in this society. The Dutchess County resident describes Falsettos as “a conversationalist piece; it crosses over the footlights, so to speak, so there is something that is genuine about the communication that the audience receives.”

March of the Falsettos not only scared the horses gleefully, but it also won 1981’s Best Musical from the Outer Critics’ Circle. In 1990, a sequel to the trials of Marvin and his extended family, titled Falsettoland, arrived. Set in 1981, it dramatizes the ongoing travails of our merry band, older and perhaps no wiser. Here, they look for happiness in the Reagan era just as an unnamed disease arrives. The companion pieces were fused together in Falsettos, which opened on Broadway in 1992 and ran for 486 performances, netting Tony awards for Best Book of a Musical and Best Original Score.

Archambault saw in the musical more than a time capsule of a lost era.

“To me, [Falsettos is] so true, not only to the time period, but to what people are still struggling with, which is what do we make our families out to be and who are our families and how we create that?”

The dramatis personae of Falsettos are true New Yorkers: charmingly insecure and whiningly insistent. If this sounds like dubious company for an evening of theatre, think again; Finn’s characters (the book was co-written with James Lapine) are drawn broadly but with nuanced honesty. They are engaging and sympathetic, even as they fumble with their owner’s manual for life. (The musical title Falsettos refers to the high-pitched tones of an adolescent male, before his testes—both literal and metaphorical—descend so he may become a man.)

Playing Marvin, both romantic and passive-aggressive, Bill Ross of Clermont is back on stage after an 18-year hiatus, during which he worked in Manhattan at Young & Rubicam Advertising and Sony BMG Music Entertainment. Maria Hickey of Pleasant Valley plays Trina, the high-strung housewife incensed that the world lied about happily ever after. The lead singer for The Michael Dell Orchestra, Hickey performs in local and regional theater. Whizzer, the handsome boyfriend with one obstinate foot stuck in arrested adolescence, is played by Jim Nurre, most recently seen as Captain Walker in Kevin Archambault’s CenterStage production of The Who’s Tommy. Johnny Dell plays Mendel, the nebbish shrink with delusions of grandeur. A local actor for three decades, Dell most recently played Max Bialystock in the Up In One Production of The Producers.

As child prodigy Jason, 12-year-old Thomas Netter performs with Golden Stone Productions, Coleman High School, The Center, and Coach House Players. Stone Ridge resident Molly Parker-Myers—recently seen in Forbidden Broadway at Stageworks in Hudson—plays Dr. Charlotte, the lesbian internist next door. She has performed with the avant-garde pioneer troupe Mabou Mines. And playing her lover, the Kosher caterer Cordelia, Victoria Howland lives in Kingston and portrayed Ophelia in a Center production of Hamlet.

As the company of actors worked to embody their troubled, yearning characters, Archambault offered vivid advice: “I wanted everybody to find [where] they thought their character was broken,” he said, “and what they found underneath that.”

While Falsettos will prompt rueful laughs of recognition, the show will also break your heart. But director Archambault wants audiences to depart with a sense of hope. Working with set designer Richard Prouse (profiled in the July 2009 issue of Roll), the director has found a way to vividly convey that positive feeling.

As Marvin strives to build a new family, and people strive to adapt, the lyrics of one number reflect the upheaval: “Holding to the ground while the ground keeps shifting.” To dramatize the collapse of old ways, portions of the stage floor will fall away during the performance. Momentarily thrown off balance, the characters figuratively learn to regain their footing.

“Therein is the triumphant message of Falsettos,” Archambault said: “finding your inner strength.” As the musical plays out, Marvin and his battered brood discover that the “foundation that you’ve actually built upon is much more strong—and much more sure and much more based in love and respect—than you had ever realized.”

CENTERstage presents Falsettos, by William Finn and James Lapine, directed by Kevin Archambault, musical direction by James Fitzwilliam, at The Center for Performing Arts, 661 Route 308, Rhinebeck. Feb 12-14, Feb 19-21, Feb 26-28. Fr/Sa 8 PM, Su 3 PM. $22 for adults; $20 seniors and children., Box Office: 845.876.3080.

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