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Memphis Flyer Finding Family

By Hadley Hury

JANUARY 26, 1998:  Odds are that whatever deficits theatre-goers may find in the musical Falsettos – on stage at Circuit Playhouse through February 8th – will be outweighed by its assets. It’s an even better bet that any cavils will target the material itself rather than the Circuit production, which is ambitious and entertaining. Smartly directed by Kevin Shaw with music direction by Michael Meeks, and brought to life by a fine cast including Kim Justis, Randall Hartzog, Michael Detroit, Tom Clifton, and Timothy Joel Case, the Circuit show measures up very well to the rigorous demands of Falsettos’ unusual structure, pace, and tone.

Cobbled together from two off-Broadway musicals, March of the Falsettos and Falsettoland, the amalgam Falsettos won two 1992 Tony Awards. Created by William Finn, in collaboration with James Lapine (who is perhaps best known as Stephen Sondheim’s librettist and director of choice), the two “acts” are opera-like, in form if not in idiom – arias, duets, trios, quartets, and choruses are connected with recitatives. When first presented in the early and mid-’80s, they were considered cutting-edge, not only in form but in content. Set in 1979-81, the story – which might most generously be described as an impressionistic collage – is an urban roundelay of love, sexuality, marriage, divorce, and friendship, all driven by the common need for a sense of family, whether biological or chosen.

Marvin (Hartzog) leaves his family to live with his feckless but handsome male lover, Whizzer (Clifton). His ex-wife Trina (Justis) marries his psychiatrist, Mendel (Detroit). Marvin and Whizzer’s coupledom doesn’t work out. Marvin ends up alone – until his son’s bar mitzvah, two years later, when he and Whizzer are reunited in the face of the emerging horror of the AIDS epidemic.

If that sounds like a bit much to deal with, even in an evening that runs (intermission excluded) well over two hours – it is. The first and larger part is by far the more interesting. Finn’s score and lyrics abound with wit and variety; the musical forms range from Tin Pan Alley to Yiddish theatre-patter songs, introspective Sondheimian soliloquys to Jerry Hermanesque ballads. The second part of the program is not without its redeeming moments – and the strong Circuit cast works hard to keep it aloft – but it simply cannot sustain either the musical interest or the fresh energy of the vignette structure. Some of the songs begin to take on the dull patina of new-age repetitiveness and elevator-deep sentimentality and, narratively, the reunion of Marvin and Whizzer combined with the onslaught of AIDS – and its huge, insidious ramifications for love and sexuality in our time – is given short shrift. The sharp turn into seriousness is unguided and insufficiently supported. The ending feels tacked-on, rushed, unexamined, pat; for some, it may even have the unintended impact of trivializing the very aspects of humanity that Finn seeks to honor.

As the intelligent and wry-before-his-time son of Marvin and Trina, 13-year-old Case is a constant delight in the Circuit Falsettos. Jason is a major role in every sense – it requires a lot of singing, some very fine nuances of character; the boy functions, in a sense, as a framing perspective for the audience. He enables us to stand outside our acquired, adult compromises and indulgences, to follow the foibles of Marvin and the other adults with the ruthlessly honest perceptions and needs of a child. Case does a wonderful job of making Jason very funny and very moving.

Hartzog’s characterization of Marvin is thoughtful and strong and, in one of his most demanding singing roles to date, he handles himself well. Clifton sings the role of Whizzer beautifully and he gives the character what we most need to see: for all his shallowness, he has joie de vivre and a gentle heart. In the evening’s second part, Patti Hatchett and Leah Bray acquit themselves well in two sketchy roles that seem emblematic of Falsettos’ hurried, undernourished denouement. Justis and Detroit turn in their customary good work in portraying Trina and Mendel; the performances are focused with adroit musicality and terrific comic timing.

The onstage band, scrimmed in silhouette on a platform above the back of the stage, is composed of Meeks, Renee Kemper, and Leiza Collins. An unobtrusive but important element in this rousing Circuit production, they maintain a clean musical line, an almost frenetic pace, and an appropriate tone of comic rue for Finn’s whirlwind tour of that great falling-off, that grinding shift of gears, that marked America’s passage into the 1980s.

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