The magical production of “Falsettos” running for just one more short week at Rep Stage in Columbia demonstrates just how much Howard County audiences are about to lose.
When the seven actors take their final curtain call on May 14, not only will the production of “Falsettos” shut down for good. So will Rep Stage itself, due to Howard Community College’s decision to shutter the troupe after 29 seasons — a move that will save the school less than 1% of its more than $40.3 million operating budget.
Rep Stage is the only fully professional theater in Howard County, the only troupe to mount productions using career actors and designers. A spokeswoman for the college has said the college wishes to prioritize programs directly serving students.
But serving students is exactly what “Falsettos” is doing.
The Tony Award-winning musical by William Finn and James Lapine might be set relative eons ago, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, but the struggles of the dysfunctional family at the musical’s center, a family that splinters, falls apart, reforms into new configurations and somehow manages to show up for one another, a family in which the four male characters have different ideas about what it means to be a man, could not have more to say to young people on the cusp of adulthood.
When the show begins, Marvin has left his wife and young son to move in with Whizzer, his male lover. Marvin’s psychiatrist, Mendel, falls in love with Marvin’s estranged wife, Trina. Precocious 10-year-old Jason is furious, torn and confused.
The show wins the audience over with the clever lyrics in its opening number, “Four Jews in a Room Bitching.”
“I’m neurotic,” the cast sings. “He’s neurotic. They’re neurotic. We’re neurotic.”
That of course makes you think about your own family regardless of whether or not you happen to be Jewish. ‘Yes,” you think. “Sounds about right.”
“Falsettos” is almost completely sung throughout. As much as I love plays, there’s something about musicals that seems to bypass our usual ways of hearing and plug directly into our emotions.
Perhaps it’s that singing is a physical act in a way that speaking is not. For once, the body and not the mind is giving the orders and running the show. There is no choice, really, but for performers to drop their defenses and allow themselves to be vulnerable on stage.
And just like that, the audience is hooked.
To say that a show casts a powerful spell is not the same thing as saying that it is flawless. “Falsettos” is known for its rapid-fire, witty lyrics that reflect the characters’ interior states of mind. This is not an easy show to sing. But at times the performers’ diction was muddied and it was difficult for the audience to catch every amusing lyric, which was a shame.
And yet, director Joseph Ritsch cast this show of big-voiced singers almost perfectly.
Actor Jake Lowenthal makes Marvin’s bewilderment and bitterness palpable when after decades of having everything go his way, life veers out of control. Davon Williams gives Whizzer, a self-described “pretty boy” who is expected to cook and keep house for Marvin, unexpected depth and poignancy. Michael Perrie Jr. saves his character, the nebbishy psychiatrist Mendel, from becoming a buffoon by endowing him with great kindness and an innate sense of knowing how to act in a crisis.
And as Trina, Sarah Corey gets the musical’s showstopping comic number when she suffers a nervous breakdown while cooking dinner.
“It’s me who is the matter,” Corey sings in her beautiful, clear mezzo-soprano as she flings chopped vegetables around the stage, “talking madder than the maddest hatter.”
Grayden Goldman deserves a special shoutout. Child actors are rarely as convincing on stage as their adult counterparts. That is to be expected, since they have not had decades to hone their craft. So, when the actor playing Jason settled down after a bit of stiffness in his early scenes and easily held his own, I assumed I was watching an unusually short and youthful-looking adult perhaps in his late teens or early twenties.
It wasn’t until I checked the program that I realized that this pint-size performer was nowhere close to being old enough to vote or even to drive a car. In fact, he’s still in middle school.
Daniel Ettinger’s intuitive set subtly underscores the musical’s themes, with a backdrop showing the outline of the Manhattan skyline and a stage floor made up of rectangular grids. Actors are forever moving in and out of the boxes that confine them, pushing boundaries and crossing lines.
Julie Potter’s hilarious costumes remind those of us old enough to remember the 80s just how awful those fashions were, down to Trina and Mendel’s matching workout clothes. (And yes, she wears leg warmers.)
For more than two hours, I watched seven characters on stage trying to do the right thing. They messed up, made amends, got mad, apologized, grew up. I teared up more than once and left the theater wanting to be a better person. On my way to the garage, I wondered if my fellow theatergoers had been affected as profoundly as I had.
Rep Stage’s small, black box theater seats 150, and this production of “Falsettos” had 18 performances, most of which, I was told, were sold out. That means that roughly 2,700 people will see this show.
The spell cast by art is never is permanent, unfortunately. Even sincere resolutions quickly get swallowed up by the push and pull of daily life.
But what if every audience member’s good intentions lasted for just five minutes? That would total 225 hours during which one might drive home a little more courteously. Another might give a stranger a compliment. A third might say “yes” when asked a favor instead of “no.”
Wouldn’t that be something?
“Falsettos” runs through May 14 in Howard Community College’s Horowitz Theatre, 10901 Little Patuxent Pkwy., Columbia. General admission tickets cost $40, but are $35 for senior citizens and members of the military. For details, call 443-518-1500 or go to repstage.org.