By Paige Allen
June 23, 2019
Four people share a moment together. Two couples: a pair of men and a pair of women. They touch each other. They comfort each other. They love each other.
These pairs of lovers can be found in the form of a statue in a small park just outside the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village. They can also be seen on the stage of the Hamilton Murray Theater during the moving second act of Princeton Summer Theater’s production of Falsettos.
The history tying these images together spans fifty years and connects in uncanny ways. It begins with the uprising at the Stonewall Inn in June of 1969, when patrons of the gay bar resisted the New York Police Department’s raids of the site. What became known as the Stonewall riots is viewed as igniting the modern movement for LGBTQ+ rights in the United States.
In 1981, William Finn and James Lapine debuted “March of the Falsettos,” a one-act Off-Broadway musical set in 1979 centering on a gay man named Marvin. In 1990, Finn and Lapine opened “Falsettoland” Off-Broadway, continuing the story of Marvin and his friends and family. Although the two plays are set only two years apart, a decade had passed since Finn “March of the Falsettos”; in that time, the country faced the terror of the AIDS crisis which left a searing mark on the LGBTQ+ community and on Finn’s work.
In 1992, artist George Segal’s sculpture Gay Liberation depicting two gay couples was placed in Christopher Park. That same year, “March of the Falsettos” and “Falsettoland” were combined into one two-act musical, Falsettos, and debuted on Broadway.
In 2016, Falsettos received a Broadway revival, and Gay Liberation was designated the Stonewall National Monument, the first U.S. National Monument memorializing LGBTQ+ rights and history.
Now, in 2019, as PST mounts its take on Falsettos, we celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Stonewall riots.
I give this brief history lesson to say: while Falsettos is intentionally focused on the experience of one extended family and does not attempt to capture fifty years of LGBTQ+ history—the word “AIDS” is never spoken, though it is certainly felt, and Stonewall does not figure explicitly into the piece at all—I could not help but feel the weight of something bigger than Falsettos in the theater as I watched those four unlikely lovers sing together in a hospital room.
The effect of AIDS on the characters serves to further explore the subject at the heart of the play: family, in its many shapes and dysfunctionalities.
Yes, Falsettos has the power to make you sob. But the musical—particularly its first act—is also deeply funny.
That is where director and PST Artistic Director Daniel Krane steps in. With the help of his design team and actors, Krane provides a fresh and clever interpretation of Falsettos which emphasizes just how childish adults can be.
Jeffrey Van Velsor’s set consists of a central, tiered platform surrounded by tall white shelves on which sit an abundance of colorful games and toys—dollhouses, building blocks, racecars, LEGO sets. The stage feels like the office of a children’s psychiatrist or the pristine window of a toy store.
In Krane’s take on Falsettos, the characters express themselves by interacting with these toys and games. Marvin (Michael Rosas) starts the show taking a call on a toy telephone. His lover, Whizzer (Dylan Blau Edelstein), suggestively fondles a hobby horse. Psychiatrist Mendel (given a convincing and lovable awkwardness by Justin Ramos) holds a blue ball as he experiences growing feelings for Trina (Bridget McNiff), Marvin’s wife. As Marvin and Mendel express their frustration with each other in song, Whizzer and Marvin’s son, Jason (played by Hannah Chomiczewski with the perfect ratio of confusion to perception), fight over pillows in the background.
The toys are given additional meaning by a system of color coding in which each character is associated with a single hue. Costume designer Jules Peiperl emulates dolls or cartoon characters through brightly monochromatic outfits in Act One, and the resultant rainbow produced by the costumed actors both infuses the play with a youthful energy and alludes to the LGBTQ+ pride flag. Lighting designer Megan Berry uses color to show which characters are at odds and whose narrative is dominating. The props and set, too, incorporate this strategic coloring: Whizzer and Jason’s fight over a red pillow becomes a metaphor for their competing demands of Marvin who is dressed entirely in red.
The only character who doesn’t read as childlike in the first act of the play is Trina. McNiff gives a terrific performance as the mother trying to hold it all together and clean up after the boys in her life. When Trina sings about “all the happy men who rule the world” who “grow but don’t mature” and “play too rough” and whose “toys are people’s lives,” her words are heightened when her metaphors have been acted out literally throughout the first act.
In fact, time and again, Krane’s conceit to use toys and games lifts up the lyrics of the piece. Whizzer sings about “The Games I Play,” and Blau Edelstein shifts from his previous childlike buoyancy into a complex and emotionally deep performance, proving he can break hearts when it’s just him and the audience (he does it again during “You Gotta Die Sometime” in Act Two). When Marvin sings “winning is everything to me” during “The Chess Game,” we glimpse how he views the world: a series of games, like the literal ones surrounding him, he needs to play and win.
In the opening to Act Two, however, Marvin sings, “It’s about time to grow up,” and the play does. The games and toys are still onstage, but actors no longer fight with pillows during scenes. Peiperl’s costumes retain their color palette but become more muted and realistic. We meet two new characters, caterer Cordelia (the charming Michelle Navis) and internist Dr. Charlotte (the powerful Chamari White-Mink), the lesbians next door. It’s time for a reality check. A consistently strong performer, Rosas truly shines in this second act, when Marvin is knocked down and forced to grow up in ways he never predicted.
And so we find ourselves in a hospital room. Marvin, Cordelia, and Charlotte gather around Whizzer, unconsciously echoing a statue yet to be built. What makes this image different from Gay Liberation, however, is that the couples are not self-contained as is the case in the statue. In Falsettos, the four constitute a quartet of “unlikely lovers,” grieving and loving together. They sing about being scared and being brave—together. It’s a song about their personal lives, but it is also a song about the “something bigger” that is most present in this scene.
Their song of fear and hope speaks to Stonewall and AIDS and Orlando’s Pulse nightclub. It draws on the history, captures the present, and looks toward the future. And its message, like that of Falsettos as a whole, is one of love, the connections it forges, and the stories it tells.
BCS-friendliness rating: 5 out of 5 stars
I received a complimentary ticket for this show as a reviewer. However, even if I had to pay, the price is great. Student tickets are $24.50 for a single show, and three-show ($65) and full ($79) subscriptions are also available. The 200-seat house is intimate, so there really isn’t a bad seat (except perhaps the very front row).
Princeton Summer Theater has been producing great works of theater and empowering the stars of tomorrow for over fifty years. Through PST, up-and-coming students and young professionals gain training and experience in theatrical production, performance, marketing, and more. Located in the Hamilton Murray Theater on the campus of Princeton University, PST continually delivers a summer season of high-quality, affordable theatre.
This summer, in addition to reviewing shows in NYC, I’ll be reviewing the PST season as well. Be on the lookout for reviews of Deathtrap, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and more to come.