Theater Review: FALSETTOS (42nd Street Moon, San Francisco)

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by Chuck Louden on March 5, 2024

in Theater-San Francisco / Bay Area


The musical masterpiece Falsettos follows Marvin (William Giammona), an appealing, brainy, anxious, obsessive, wealthy Jewish gay man who struggles to create a tight-knit family out of his eclectic array of core relationships, including his ex-wife Trina (Ariela Morgenstern); his new, handsome, muscled and somewhat snarky young boyfriend Whizzer (Samuel Prince), his twelve-year-old son Jason (Yuval Weissberg, alternating with Madelyn Simon), his psychiatrist Mendel (Gary Brintz), and his neighbors “who are lesbians from next door” — kosher caterer Cordelia (Monica Rose Slater) and her partner Dr. Charlotte (Cindy Goldfield). Amid 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” —  Marvin is forced to reckon with his own views on love, responsibility and what it means to be a man.

Will Giammona as Marvin, Yuval Weissberg as Jason, Ariela Morgenstern as Trina
Samuel Prince as Whizzer, Gary Brintz as Mendel, Madelyn Simon as Jason, Will Giammona

42 Street Moon is bringing us this musical masterpiece at the intimate Gateway Theatre. The combination of whimsy, joy and gut-wrenching poignancy is like nothing you’ve seen before. At over two-and-a-half hours, you won’t want it to end. Written by William Finn, with James Lapine co-writing the book, March of the Falsettos — debatably the best score of the ‘80s — played Off-Broadway in 1981 and is the first act here. In 1990, Falsettoland, the last and most sobering of the three Marvin musicals (beginning with In Trousers), followed its characters into the age of AIDS. The latter two one-acts were combined into a two-act musical, Falsettos, which opened on Broadway in 1992. This is when Finn won Tony Awards for best score and best book.

Samuel Prince, Gary Brintz
Yuval Weissberg, Will Giammona, Gary Brintz, Samuel Prince, Ariela Morgenstern

The show sets the audience up right away with the humorous world of Jewish neurosis and self-deprecation with the musical number: “Four Jews In a Room Bitching.” Marvin and Trina are separately seeing the same psychiatrist, Mendel, who is falling hard for his patient Trina. Marvin and Whizzer move in together, while Jason is going through his own teenage angst trying to figure out what it is to be a young man as his Bar Mitzvah approaches. The family dynamics shift in the second act. As Jason travels back and forth between mom and dad as they argue about how their child’s ceremony should be handled, a silent enemy is creeping into the streets of New York. It’s 1981 and the scourge is upon us.

Will Giammona, Samuel Prince
Ariela Morgenstern, Will Giammona, Gary Brintz

Finn gives his characters solo moments to express their fears, doubts and insecurities; as family dynamics change, so do all their personal identities. Each actor has a powerful voice, but given her show-stopping number “I’m Breaking Down,” Ariela Morgenstern’s performance as mother and wife Trina is mesmerizing. Director Dennis Lickteig‘s valedictory staging does abundant justice to this multi-faceted musical. No show-off steps, Leslie Waggoner’s choreography comes right out of the story, just as Finn’s still-resonant sung-through score reiterates that as important as individuality is, more important is giving love and respect to your family in whatever form it happens to take.

Yuval Weissberg, Gary Brintz
Will Giammona, Ariela Morgenstern, Monica Rose Slater, Cindy Goldfield, Gary Brintz

There is really no way to explain how much the variety within the music adds to the tone of the story: Finn finds more melodious and oral twists in one tune than today’s songsmiths do in an entire show. Ragtime, power ballads, syncopated intricacies, and Golden Age Broadway bounce all feature Michael Starobin‘s wholly original orchestrations, played beautifully by Musical Director Dave Dobrusky’s offstage “teeny-tiny band”: Dobrusky on piano, Ken Brill on synthesizer, Terry Halorson on woodwinds and Kirk Duplantis on percussion. Their valuable contributions set the tone, mood and action, and the instruments never overpower the actors so we can hear every tricky lyric from the articulative cast.

You will laugh and you will most definitely be moved as you’re drawn in by the talent and the message that “Love is Blind” and “Love Can Tell a Million Stories.”

Ariela Morgenstern as Trina

photos by Ben Krantz Studio

42nd Street Moon
Gateway Theatre, 215 Jackson St in San Francisco
ends on March 17, 2024
for tickets ($30-$78), call 415.255.8207 or visit 42nd St Moon

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