Theater Review: IN TROUSERS (Lounge Theatre)

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by Tony Frankel on November 2, 2019

in Theater-Los Angeles


William Finn’s musical masterpiece Falsettos is a melding of two one-acts: March of the Falsettos — debatably one of the best scores of the 1980s — which opened Off-Broadway in 1981, and Falsettoland, which opened in 1990 at the Lucille Lortel, where unprepared audience members like myself needed boxes of tissues to survive the heartrending ending. The latter two one-acts were combined into Falsettos for Broadway in 1992. This is when Finn won Tony Awards for best score and best book — co-written by director James Lapine, who helped Finn delve deeper into characterization than he did on his prequel, In Trousers, which is receiving a rare revival at the Lounge in Hollywood.

This first of the three “Marvin Shows” played Off-Broadway in 1979. Although wet behind the ears as a composer/lyricist, Finn offered a different sound while feeling distinctively like show tunes. Sparkling, ear-catching music and clever, amusing, surprising, sophisticated lyrics combined with his challenging subject matter (I wonder if today’s audiences know how controversial it was to have an openly gay character in a musical) proved him to be the most exciting songwriter to materialize since Sondheim.

The second two one-acts follow Marvin of core relationships: an ex-wife, new boyfriend, adolescent son, psychiatrist, and “neighbors who are lesbians from next door.” Amidst a series of monumental life changes from 1979 to 1981 — including his son’s impending Bar Mitzvah and the onset of what was then known as “Gay Plague” — he is forced to reckon with his own views on love, responsibility and what it means to be a man. In comparison, In Trousers is a fairly lightweight song cycle with a slight plot (updated by Finn in 1985) compared to that of his universal characters in the age of AIDS.

It starts in 1979 with Marvin (the quirky and endearing Braxton Molinaro) wide awake in bed knowing he’s about to leave his wife and son, especially since he has fallen for Whizzer Brown (we never see Marvin with men here, but we do get his journey from “no more men!” to his moving in with one). He relives his story beginning at 14 with three females to help: his high school sweetheart (silly Lea Madda) who loves Marvin more than he does her; his teacher (Michelle Lane, blessed with wicked pipes) whom he fantasizes about (“Mrs. Goldberg”); and the here unnamed Trina, (distinctive and watchable Tal Fox) who goes from bride to disenchanted, dejected, disjoined divorcee. Trina’s breakout solo, “I’m Breaking Down,” was the only song added to March of the Falsettos later on, and it’s the best song here.

Finn hadn’t matured into the Finn we know yet, but there are plenty of signs of his bounce, humor, idiosyncratic cynicism to come. But there’s too much repetition in the music — and worse the lyrics — that show signs of his being green. Which is no doubt why this show was practically abandoned until after the success of March. It has fascinating material yet it’s not a great show.

One of my favorite things about Knot Free Productions’ rendition is that it feels just like the revues from the late ’70s: Michael Mullin’s rag shop costumes; Corey Lynn Howe’s pink-and-white sets with moveable pink boxes; and flats behind the band — and boy is it sweet to have live musicians in an intimate space: Jake Anthony (piano and music director), Joe Martone (percussion), and Ethan Chiampas (bass). The harmonies in the show are awesome; in fact Finn began writing the show with friends Mary Testa and Alison Fraser just to try out his material, and it’s their colossal harmonies that ended up In Trousers. Here, the girls are not just exquisitely super-tight but with a blend not easily replicated (there are no mics, so — can you imagine? — there are no sound problems).

This is why it’s tough to report that the direction is where this show goes awry. Sure, Ryan O’Connor’s playful staging keeps us distracted with some beguiling and intriguing antics, and I have to applaud that the show moves a lot yet doesn’t fell busy. But Mr. O’Connor treats this like a musical comedy revue — which it may be. But without the gravitas that Lapine brought to Falsettos, the material can feel dense — it’s hard to take in. Marvin & Wife have two numbers — “Love Me for What I Am” and “Breakfast over Sugar” — that slow down enough for actors to relax without a hyper-manic style, creating emotion that is missing (and much needed) elsewhere. “I Am Wearing a Hat” — in which the Sweetheart and Teacher recognize their loneliness — definitely needed earnestness, not Ms. Madda forcing a fake drunk. And when Ms. Lane interacts with the drummer at one point, that revue-like humor robs us of the grounding and character-driven choices to make an OK show soar.

Still, Knot Free Productions still offers a commendable production. For many reasons, and songs with groundbreaking exposition such as “How Marvin Eats His Breakfast,” the show is entertaining and an important visit for all musical theatre aficionados. 

photos by Arthur Marroquin

In Trousers
Knot Free Productions
Lounge Theatre, 6201 Santa Monica Blvd. in Hollywood
ends on November 3, 2019
for tickets, visit In Trousers 

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