Angst and the '80s In Elden's 'Falsettos'

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By Michael J. Toscano
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, March 19, 2009

One of the big crowd-pleasers in "Falsettos," the sung-through chamber musical by the Elden Street Players, is an ensemble number called "The Ball Game." It's full of cringe-inducing angst about a family forced to watch "Jewish boys who can't play baseball play baseball."

Much of the show is much more sensitive than that brazen bit of ethnic stereotyping, and we meet some very articulate, if self-absorbed, characters. However, the self-mocking tone is a warning that this show, although dated, has punch.

Set firmly in an early-1980s zeitgeist, "Falsettos" is about the search for sexual identity in the dawning of the age of AIDS and how the concept of family life can be elastic and still work.

Director Christopher Smith has adroitly steered his seven cast members away from melodrama, allowing the musical to outshine its period-piece status. What we see at Herndon's Industrial Strength Theatre is a focus on the frequently bittersweet but always human-scale humor in the tale. Extraordinary vitality is layered in the 40 songs, along with complex, multiple harmonies and lyrics alternately poignant, funny and sassy. Smith's crew expertly exploits those strengths without allowing too much emphasis on the passe aspects of the story lines and stereotypical characters. Thus, the actors broaden the rather narrow viewpoint we get from the oh-so-familiar people of this tale, all comfortably middle class, white and youthful New Yorkers.

"Falsettos" is actually two one-act musicals from William Finn (with story help from James Lapine) that have been merged: 1981's "March of the Falsettos" and the 1990s "Falsettoland." Elements of another Finn one-act, "In Trousers," can also be found here.

In 1979, Marvin (Harv Lester) is conflicted over how his sexual identity affects his craving for a traditional family life. Marvin leaves wife Trina (Amy K. Cropper) and son Jason (Wesley Coleman) for Whizzer (John Loughney). That sets up a new family configuration, as Trina ends up married to Mendel (Keith J. Miller), Marvin's psychiatrist, who is slogging through his own issues.

Along the way, we meet friends Charlotte (Kat Brais) and Cordelia (Katie Wanschura), the nice lesbian couple next door. Charlotte is a doctor and Cordelia is a "kosher caterer" who makes inedible concoctions.

Marvin and Whizzer break up and later reunite. Jason, meanwhile, is the stereotypical kid who is wiser than the adults and faces his bar mitzvah just about the time the AIDS epidemic begins to emerge and threaten this extended family. By the time we reach the intensely moving finale, the fractures of the sexual-identity crisis are replaced by enduring bonds forged in love and loss. Elisa Rosman's energetic five-piece band propels the show forward, and the sound (by Stan Harris) is perfectly balanced with the singers for a warm and natural ambiance. The only flaw is that Rosman occasionally relies on a cheesy-sounding keyboard to synthesize strings, cheapening rather than enhancing the score.

Despite the strong focus on men seeking a new paradigm of masculinity, the ladies in the cast have some of the best moments. Cropper, in particular, shines in two Act One numbers.

In "I'm Breaking Down," she stops the show with a potent examination of bitterness and frustration, made all the more powerful as she caresses the song with a light touch, rather than bludgeoning us. Cropper doesn't hold back in "Trina's Song" a short time later, however, zinging "happy, frightened, silly men who rule the world" to blistering effect.

Coleman, an eighth-grader at Rocky Run Middle School, gives an effective and natural performance as Jason, blessedly free of the artificial showbiz veneer so many youngsters have onstage.

Smith also designed the minimalist set, anchored by two rounded, nine-step-high platforms at both sides of the stage. Moveable staircases and several set pieces complete the presentation. The set is painted in dull black with a few gray highlights, a drab and uninspired backdrop that does nothing to enhance this tuneful story with so many different emotional colors.

"Falsettos" continues through April 4, performed by the Elden Street Players at the Industrial Strength Theatre, 269 Sunset Park Dr., Herndon. Showtime is 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; 7 p.m. Sundays; and 8 p.m. next Thursday and April 2. For reservations, call 703-481-5930. For tickets and information, visit

© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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