"March of the Falsettos" is a mere slip of a musical. Exuberantly tuneful and lyrically adroit as far as it goes, it just doesn't go very far.
Actually "musical" probably isn't the right term to describe the show, which opened Sunday at the Studio Theatre. There is almost no dialogue, only a series of brief, sometimes vivifying numbers, gathered in a 90-minute (with intermission) cluster. But somehow, "chamber opera" sounds too pompous, "revue" too light-hearted.
What composer/lyricist William Finn has written are 20 songs about Marvin and Jason and Trina and Whizzer and Mendel. Marvin is the husband of Trina and the father of 14-year-old Jason. But he's left his family to live with his gay lover, Whizzer, although that relationship is not yet a year old and already falling apart. Mendel is the psychiatrist they all consult in an attempt to sort out their neurotic lives. Mendel, however, promptly falls in love with Marvin's wife, complicating matters.
None of this is told in conventional narrative style. The songs -- from solos to quintets -- come at the situation from all angles, revealing what bits of plot there are, but mostly exploring the agitated souls of the participants. The titles -- "Four Jews in a Room Bitching," "Everyone Tells Jason to See a Psychiatrist," "Marvin Hits Trina" -- are indicative of the unconventional tack Finn is pursuing.
There exists, as yet, no official Stephen Sondheim school of songwriting, but if there did, Finn would be near the head of the class. A similar melodic sophistication and literate wit are at work in "March of the Falsettos" (the title refers to Jason's nightmare vision of mincing men). Anyone who can come up with inner rhymes like "I play canasta/ disasta/rously," as Finn does, is not to be sniffed at. He's obviously got a head chock-full of upbeat tunes; if only he'd let one run on for a while!
Like Sondheim, he seems also to relish puzzles and games for both their intricacies and their symbolism. In "The Chess Game," sung by Marvin and Whizzer, wrong moves on the board are equated with missteps in life. Whizzer views his own relationships in terms of "The Games I Play." And at the end of the first act, the characters are gleefully engaged in -- what else? -- a round of musical chairs.
The Studio production is clean and crisp, which certainly makes it easy enough to take. Russell Metheny has designed a spiffy Art Deco bandstand for the three-piece combo, and the cast members wheel on the needed props -- trendy chairs, fireplace, dining room and butcher block tables -- and then, once they've served their purpose, send them gliding off into the wings. Thomas E. Allen's direction keeps people, furniture and songs flowing smoothly.
The actors are likable, too. Marvin is, frankly, an egotistical heel who "wants it all," but J. Fred Shiffman plays him as personably as conditions allow. Lenny Sansanowicz (Jason), whose adolescent voice is going to crack any one of these days, is another of those appealingly unselfconscious juveniles that the Studio seems to have a corner on. Ann Johnson (Trina) projects unassuming grace under pressure; John T. McGivern (Mendel) is not without shaggy charm. And Paul Cunningham (Whizzer) has the properly careless good looks and manner, even if vocally he isn't quite up to par.
Still, you're not left with much -- a vaguely bittersweet aftertaste, perhaps, and echoes of a sprightly score that never quite anchors itself in your memory. Finn doesn't serve a full meal with this 1981 off-Broadway hit. More like snacks.
March of the Falsettos, by William Finn. Directed by Thomas E. Allen; set, Russell Metheny; costumes, Ric Rice; lighting, Daniel Wagner. With J. Fred Shiffman, Ann Johnson, John T. McGivern, Paul Cunningham, Lenny Sansanowicz. At the Studio Theatre through June 16.