It seems almost unbelievable that London has had to wait twenty-seven years for a professional production of Falsettos, the seminal 1992 Broadway musical about a New York family that breaks apart and slowly comes back together again when one parent comes out as gay, but somehow it’s 2019 and this is the show’s UK premiere. Well, sort of. Falsettos is formed from two earlier one-acts – March of the Falsettos, which premiered off-Broadway in 1981, and Falsettoland, which premiered in 1990 – and only the former has already received a professional production in the UK (there’s a third one-act – In Trousers – including some of the same characters; it preceded these two shows, premiering in 1979). It’s easy to forget now how strikingly unusual it was back in 1990 to see a piece of relatively mainstream theatre that placed same-sex couples and the spectre of AIDS in the context of a loving, accepting family, and did so without resorting to limp-wristed flaming-queen caricatures, something which cannot be said for, for example, the musical adaptation of La Cage Aux Folles a few years earlier; Falsettos is one of those landmark pieces of writing that represented a decisive step forwards, and it also – fortunately – happens to be a terrific, idiosyncratic, thoroughly moving piece of theatre with a score that is probably still William Finn’s masterpiece.
It’d be lovely, then, to be able to say this long-awaited London production does the show justice, wouldn’t it? Sorry, you can’t have everything. There were alarm bells in August, when a group of UK-based Jewish artists wrote an open letter to the Stage protesting – justifiably – that there appeared to be no Jewish people represented among the cast or creative team of this very, very New-York-Jewish show (the opening number is called Four Jews In A Room Bitching, five out of seven characters in the show are Jewish, there are Yiddish words sprinkled among the lyrics, the climactic scene in the second act takes place at a Bar Mitzvah). The resulting furore included a lot of people deliberately and disingenuously misunderstanding the complaint – look on theatre-related bulletin boards and you’ll find a plethora of witless straw man “arguments” of the how-dare-they-not-cast-CATS-with-actual-cats variety – and the production company’s statement in response to the letter was rather less conciliatory than it might have been given that it was addressing an entirely valid request from a minority group that they be included in the telling of one of their stories. It’s unfair to judge work that, at that point, hadn’t yet been seen on the basis of what rapidly, on social media, turned into a rather unpleasant debate, but it wasn’t an auspicious start.
And to be fair, the biggest problem with this production – and there are many problems with this production – is emphatically not simply that none of the actors are Jewish, which was how a number of people (cynically) misconstrued the points raised in that letter. The problem here is also emphatically not that this production’s cast are untalented – these are all superb singers and actors, they’ve all got impressive CVs, and they’re all, in theory, more than capable of excelling in these roles.
Something, though, is out of balance somewhere, although maybe it’s not so obvious if you haven’t previously seen a production that worked better than this one does (I saw the touring iteration of the original Broadway production in Washington DC in 1993, and I’ve seen the filmed version of the 2016 Broadway revival). Particularly in the first half, the tone seems more than a little off – the effortlessness of the performances on the two original off-Broadway cast recordings makes it easy to forget that this is very, very tricky material to perform. Both acts are through-sung, and Finn’s dazzling but rather eccentric score includes a number of quick-fire passages which aren’t exactly recitative, but in which dialogue is twisted and compressed into the constraints of the structure of a song. The singing in this production is terrific. The direction, unfortunately, really isn’t.
The first act is more problematic than the second. In the first act – March of the Falsettos – Marvin, the show’s central character, has left his wife (Trina) for a male lover (Whizzer, and let’s take a moment to regret that Finn and James Lapine, his collaborator, didn’t see fit to include the splendidly-titled Whizzer Going Down from In Trousers when they glued March of the Falsettos and Falsettoland together to make Falsettos), Trina gets engaged to Mendel, Marvin’s psychiatrist, and Marvin and Trina’s ten-year-old son Jason struggles to come to an understanding that his own interpretations of masculinity and sexuality do not necessarily have to reflect his father’s choices. It’s tricky, subtle emotional territory, given a fast-paced, very New York tragicomic spin – the score often suggests an overcaffeinated combination of Sondheim, Woody Allen, and Jules Feiffer, with lines and observations that sometimes seem to have come straight from a BEK cartoon – and while some of the material is very funny, there’s real emotion in there too, not to mention a lot of anger.
As (badly) directed by Tara Overfield-Wilkinson, what we’re served up here is closer in tone to a second-tier episode of a third-rate New York-set sitcom. Until the last five minutes of the first act, almost every single significant moment is somehow botched, mostly because Ms. Overfield-Wilkinson (presumably) directs her cast to push too hard (I have to assume they’re giving the performances they’ve been directed to give; I’ve seen most of them in other things, and they’re all capable of much, much better work than they’re doing here). The result, I’m afraid, is a mess: five abundantly talented actor-singers marooned on PJ McEvoy’s startlingly ugly, too-cartoonish set, mugging to such a ridiculous degree that they kill half the laughs and strangle most of the piece’s emotional content.
Worse, Ms. Overfield-Wilkinson’s staging of the first act’s title song – a surreal dream sequence in which the four male characters perform a soft-shoe number in falsetto, a voice range which falls outside traditional stereotypes associated with masculinity – is simply catastrophically bad: under her direction, it’s little more than two-and-a-half minutes of silliness, and the point – yes, there is one – is completely lost. Throughout the first half, every word, every gesture, every choreographed movement is a little bit too big, a little bit too broad, a little bit too laboured. It’s only in the last five minutes, as Daniel Boys’s Marvin sings a beautiful, quiet song called Father to Son to Jason, that you catch a glimpse of what this half of the show should have been.
If Ms. Overfield-Wilkinson finds herself on surer footing in the second half, that’s partly because Falsettoland has always been the stronger of the show’s two constituent one-acts. in Falsettoland, which takes place in 1981, Marvin gets back together with Whizzer, Marvin and Trina argue over preparations for Jason’s forthcoming Bar Mitzvah, and Whizzer falls ill and is diagnosed with an as-yet-unnamed disease with a terrifyingly bleak prognosis. Even in a less than completely successful production, I defy anyone to remain unmoved by the last twenty minutes of the show; throughout, Finn’s songs for Falsettoland still rank among the very best things he’s ever written (for my money, the best of all is Whizzer’s devastatingly unflinching You Gotta Die Sometime), and in this production they’re all sung beautifully. There’s far less of the first act’s hyperactive mugging in the second half of the show; that’s not because the direction in the second half is any better, because it mostly isn’t, but simply because the plot and tone allow fewer opportunities for it.
Still, though, something isn’t quite right. Since the tone in the second half isn’t quite as hyperactively neurotic, there’s more time to focus on the absence of any chemistry between any of the adult actors, and to note that all three romantic couples we see in the show – Daniel Boys and Oliver Savile as Marvin and Whizzer, Laura Pitt-Pulford and Joel Montague (a late replacement for another performer) as Trina and Mendel, and Gemma Knight-Jones and Natasha J Barnes as Dr. Charlotte and Cordelia, an underwritten pair of “lesbians from next door” who appear only in the second half – give the impression of having met for the first time backstage at the five-minute call. Again, these actors are all – all – capable of far better work than they’re doing here; it seems reasonable to assume that whatever went wrong, and something clearly did, went wrong during the rehearsal process and probably stems from choices made by the director.
This production, I’m afraid, seems to be terrified of intimacy, and particularly terrified of intimacy within same-sex couples. It’s one thing for the relationship between Trina and Mendel to read as being less than completely passionate, because that’s more or less a plot point, and the relationship between Dr. Charlotte and Cordelia is given relatively little stage time. The staging choices in the relationship between Marvin and Whizzer, on the other hand, seem carefully calculated to – there’s no nice way of putting this – rinse away the gay, as if it’s only OK to tell a story placing male homosexuals in the context of a family with – gasp! – a child if you render them completely sexless. Take, for example, Ms. Overfield-Wilkinson’s staging of What More Can I Say? Marvin’s Act Two love song to Whizzer. The stage directions in the published script suggest something very specific, in terms of the intimacy the moment is supposed to carry:
In Ms. Overfield-Wilkinson’s staging, both actors are fully-clothed, and Whizzer has dozed off on a sofa with a book in his lap – the book, of course, strategically positioned over the genital area so that there isn’t even the slightest possibility of any kind of naughty touching going on. I’m the last person, generally, to dictate that directors stick slavishly to stage directions in a published script – but if you’re going to change something, be aware of what you’re changing. If you can’t get a bed onto your (hideous) set – and they could have, in another scene Trina is seen in bed alone – find some alternative that preserves the intimacy suggested in the script, instead of following Ms. Overfield-Wilkinson’s example here and giving us something that looks more like a badly-thought-out Eddie Bauer advert than a moment of sensual tenderness between two lovers. In this show, of all shows, there is no excuse for approaching a same-sex relationship so timidly. It’s such a disastrous failure of nerve on the part of this director that it’s actually disrespectful to the material.
On the other hand, it’s taken twenty-seven years for this show to land in this country, and it’s anyone’s guess when (or even whether) we’ll see it here again, so if you love musical theatre this is probably something you need to see. After you’ve seen it, though, track down the recordings from the orignal off-Broadway productions; even without visuals, they give a much better sense of what this material can be when it’s done properly, something you’ll unfortunately get very little sense of at The Other Palace.
And one last thing: this production, too, has fallen victim to the Marketing Curse whereby the bar staff are doomed to develop and promote themed cocktails tied into whatever show happens to be playing. Yes, in a show whose plot encompasses a family coming to terms with the implications of the onset of AIDS, you can order yourself a themed cocktail at the interval and contemplate the horror of the AIDS crisis by sipping a delightfully tart combination of pomelo and pink grapefruit gin and grenadine. If you were to try to compile a list of all the reasons our decadent civilisation is doomed, this would certainly be on it.