Falsettos (The Other Palace)

Marvin wants it all. Trina is breaking down. Whizzer is playing games, literally and emotionally. Mendel is having a professional crisis. And Jason is growing up quickly in a home which has fallen apart. We are in New York, in 1978.

These are the “Four Jews in a Room Bitching” we meet at the top of Falsettos, with a quick rush through when Marvin married Trina, Jason was born, and when Marvin left with his young and horny “friend” Whizzer to fracture his family home.

Daniel Boys as Marvin in Falsettos
Daniel Boys as Marvin in Falsettos

Mendel’s the psychiatrist who is counselling Marvin, then Trina, then Jason, who is super-smart and very perceptive (“My father says that love is the most wonderful thing in the world / I think chess is the most wonderful thing / Not love”).

In a set full of frames, some of which change time and place, some of which put the characters in little boxes (“wife and child”, “lover”), we start to get to know our characters. Marvin, an older man, is drawn to the selfish, fit and promiscuous Whizzer, the “pretty boy” who is a match physically, but not emotionally (“The Games I Play”).

Oliver Savile as Whizzer in Falsettos
Oliver Savile as Whizzer in Falsettos

Trina, struggling to raise a boy who is kicking against puberty and moving from browsing toy shops to thinking about girls, is struggling, and in her big act one number (“Breaking Down”), Laura Pitt-Pulford raises the roof and receives the first prolonged piece of applause. By act two, she’s mellowed, playing house with Mendel, tolerating Marvin’s transgressions (“I don’t like Whizzer / but Marvin sure does”).

Originally written as two shows, Falsettos feels like two complementary halves rather than a linear narrative. Every performer in act one’s March of the Falsettos is superb: Pitt-Pulford, Daniel Boys and his middle-aged Marvin, Oliver Savile’s fun-loving Whizzer, Joel Montague’s sensible Mendel (once he’s moved on from wondering whether Trina “sleeps in the nude”), and on the night I was invited to view the show, George Kennedy in his stage debut as the precocious Jason.

Laura Pitt-Pulford as Trina in Falsettos
Laura Pitt-Pulford as Trina in Falsettos

There’s a dream sequence where Trina constructs her new family circle: by act two’s Falsettoland, and Jason’s bar mitzvah, he’s described as “son of Marvin, son of Trina, son of Whizzer, son of Mendel”, as the fun of the cooking attempts of the additional “lesbians next door” becomes the close, loving and forgiving space of an anonymous hospital room of 1981.

I found the score by William Finn and book by James Lapine sometimes very reminiscent of Sondheim in its melodies and complex lyrics, but beautifully performed throughout with memorable songs – I had only heard some of the music at the recent press launch but have been humming snatches since I saw the show on Friday.

Gemma Knight-Jones and Natasha J Barnes as Charlotte and Cordelia in Falsettos
Gemma Knight-Jones and Natasha J Barnes as Charlotte and Cordelia in Falsettos

As a performing unit, the tight-knit adult cast of six, plus four rotating Jasons, are easy and warm together in this piece which is ultimately about friends, family and all forms of love. This is the strength of Falsettos, a place where a boy moves through the rite of passage to a man, even if he will always fail at baseball.

The title of Falsettos, said my companion at the show, may refer to “false love”, or, as I prefer to think of it, a love that takes time to settle into a form where everyone loves each other in a way which is right for them.

By the end scenes, we haven’t doubted the relationship between Marvin and Whizzer for a moment, and we see Trina’s happiness shining through with Mendel: in turn, he teases Jason’s reticence out with that song about hating your parents (“God understands / because he / hated his”).

Joel Montague as Mendel in Falsettos
Joel Montague as Mendel in Falsettos

From its genesis in 1978 through to the previous UK performance of March of the Falsettos, this musical has been culturally relevant to an era of homophobia, intolerance and fear. Ultimately, as the tagline goes, “love can tell a million stories”, and that is what matters.

Falsettos is directed and choreographed by Tara Overfield-Wilkinson, designed by PJ McEvoy, and Richard John is the musical director. I feel it is an important revival with an emotional punch to the gut by the end. Welcome to Falsettoland.

Falsettos continues at The Other Palace until 23 November 2019. Photo credits The Standout Company.

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Little Miss Sunshine (Arcola Theatre)

Musical versions of films seem to be one of the newest theatre trends, and here we have the tale of the dysfunctional Hopper family given a bit of stage sparkle.I’m not familiar with the source material, which feels a little dark at times and at odds with the cheery marketing for this production.

Still, as young Olive (Evie Gibson at this performance, who acted and sang well) qualifies for the Little Miss Sunshine finals in California, and we join her and her family in the journey from New Mexico, the story easily unfolds.

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Richard (Gabriel Vick, veteran of a variety of musicals from Sunny Afternoon in the West End to A Little Night Music at the Menier) is chasing a book deal which will pull his family out of debt.

His wife Sheryl (Laura Pitt-Pulford, an excellent Charity in 2017’s production of Barnum, and an effective figure of regret here) gave up her personal plans for marriage and pregnancy with son Dwayne (Sev Keoshgerian, who plays act one as a prototype silent teenager before finding his voice in act two).

Then we have Sheryl’s brother Frank (Paul Keating, a bit fey  – and stuck with an odd scene where he meets his ex and new husband-to-be – but good at prickly insecurity). He’s professionally successful but personally shaky following the end of a gay affair and a suicide attempt. As I said, a bit dark for a family musical which has children in it.

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Granpa Hooper (played with a naughty charm by Gary Wilmot, who I have seen before in Me and My Girl, The Goodbye Girl, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and more) has been evicted from an old age facility for doing drugs and chasing women. He has a good bond with Dwayne and Olive, and is quietly supportive of his son’s attempts to make good.

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It’s a pity that Wilmot doesn’t really appear in act two, except to offer a moment of slapstick around the final leg to the pageant. His departure allows Vick a touching song about fathers and sons, though, while looking through the things Granpa “left behind”.

The songs are problematic and ill-fitting at times in this production, which only really shows flashes of humour in Granpa’s act one song “The Happiest Guy in the Van”, and in act two’s flashy pageant, where his dance routine for Olive turns into a quasi-strip routine which both reunites the family and gets them ejected from the stage.

Timelines, too, are muddled, with a flashback to Richard and Sheryl’s courting feeling more 1960s than 1980s, yet Dwayne furiously taps on a smartphone, and one of the little girls in competition with Olive is “related to the Kardashians”, while a soundman wears a Nirvana t-shirt from the 1990s.

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The set, designed by David Woodhead, with revolve, yellow theme, and band up in the balcony, serves the piece well although the music overpowered the vocals somewhat in the opening ensemble number, “The Way of the World”.

Directed by Arlene McNaught, the small but talented group of musicians bring William Finn’s score to life in this intimate space.

Ultimately, despite the talents on offer – James Lapine’s book, Mehmet Ergen’s direction, and a clearly dedicated cast and crew, Little Miss Sunshine ultimately fails to gel effectively, and has moments which just feel odd in a family show.

When the lead family can be accurately described by Dwayne’s “suicide, cocaine and bankruptcy” tag, it doesn’t really sit well with Olive’s sunny optimism; and as a road trip show, I can’t help but compare it with Violet, which ran earlier in the year at Charing Cross.

Little Miss Sunshine continues at the Arcola until 11 May, then embarks on a UK tour. Photo credits – Manuel Harlan.