BY STEVE WONG
Falsettos, the current musical production of Spartanburg’s Proud Mary Theatre Company, starts off with the rousing and hysterically funny song “Four Jews In A Room Bitching,” but by the end of the musical, if you are not in tears, you had better check your pulse.
Here you have a story about an urban Jewish man, Marvin, who has left his wife, Trina, and young son, Jason, for a younger, hotter, gayer man, Whizzer. The setting being the late 1970s, everyone is trying to be accepting of what was then called “alternative lifestyles,” but as you might expect even the most socially conscious wives and children will struggle with having a gay lover injected into the traditional family mold.
This calls for a lot of professional help, provided by psychiatrist Mendel, who ignores his medical ethics and falls in love with the distraught wife — while treating both Marvin and Jason. Thus is the making for an insightful comedy about love, lust, and coping with our society’s ever-changing acceptance of what it means to not be straight, especially latent homosexuality.
Inasmuch the first act is nearly all fun and games (hint: games such as chess play a big role in this play), the second act, which happens during the Reagan Era (feel free to boo and hiss), is lovingly painful as HIV/AIDS forces these characters to refocus their lives and their understanding of what it means to be friends and lovers. Wherever you take your stand on the sexual spectrum, this musical (some call it a “sung-through play;” I call it an opera) will give you poignant insight into the complex lives of people dealing with the world’s ever changing sexual landscape.
Pause for a moment: To better understand Falsettos, it helps to know the meaning of the word. By blunt definition, “falsetto” is the unnatural high-pitch singing voice of man. Basically, it is false because most men naturally sing tenor, baritone, or bass — not soprano. Pop stars such as Michael Jackson, Prince, Barry Gibb (of the Bee Gees), and Justin Timberlake all come to mind as men who have cashed in on their ability to sing falsetto. To bluntly set this stage: Society expects men to be straight and to have deep masculine voices; gay men are often wrongly assumed to be feminine and to have high-pitched — falsetto — voices. And we all know the old adage about assumptions… when you assume, you make an…
Director John Fagan and all those associated with this Proud Mary production of Falsettos have done an outstanding job on every level. At the direction of piano player Laura Thomason, the four-piece band is finely tuned and on score without flaw. Applause for Kevin Ritter on reeds, Kevin Heuer on percussion, and Stanley Wietzychowski on synthesizer. Michael McCrary handled choreography, getting amazing and unexpected results — loved the choreographic nods to whirling dervishes and traditional Jewish dances. And although he has listed himself last in the electronic playbill, Sandy Staggs is producer extraordinaire, the man who makes it all come together time and time again.
To this reviewer’s delight, Fagan and Staggs brought in an acting crew of heavy hitters. Marvin (husband/father) is played by Greenville’s Brady Coyle-Smith, who was last seen in the Proud Mary production of The Boys in the Band in 2018. He’s also performed in Xanadu, Next to Normal, Spamalot, and Into the Woods.
Coyle-Smith’s range of emotion is wide and authentic to be a loving father, concerned ex-husband, and latent homosexual struggling but failing to make everyone happy — certainly and sadly not even himself. His acting excelled repeatedly especially in the one-on-one tender moments that he found himself having to be a better father, husband, lover, and friend.
DeAna Earl plays the wife Trina. Earl is a strong and established performance professional. This is her first time working with Proud Mary, but she has performed many times in Greenville with roles in Lend Me A Tenor, Chicago, The Addams Family, and 9 to 5. She has also been seen on the stage of Flat Rock Playhouse and singing on the deck of a cruise ship. I found both her subtle and overt facial expressions to be very telling in Falsettos. Her depth of character development is outstanding as a woman left wanting, mother of a troubled child, and a Jewish woman trying to keep her faith. Earl gives Falsettos its first of many standout moments. As her world spins out of control, distressed about the men in her life, with a large kitchen knife in hand, Trina takes to task a symbolic banana and carrot, all the while belting out the song I’m Breaking Down. Here, the actress pulls all her talents together for the longest and loudest applause of the show, except for the very teary end.
Spartanburg actor Andy Lecture is Whizzer, the other and gay younger man. Whizzer is a character who surprises the audience with his both horny-boy attitude in the first act and his growth as a person in the second. Lecture is commended for carefully balancing his character to be more than a boy toy to become a cornerstone of all of the relationships in the play. His previous acting credits have been roles in Fun Home, Southern Baptist Sissies, Little Shop of Horrors, Godspell, and Second Chance.
John Carino is Mendel, the pliable psychiatrist to all other characters. As a psychiatrist, Mendel is often the voice of reason, but that reason can be called into question when he falls in love with Trina. On one hand, this can be seen as a breach of ethics; on the other hand, he did nothing truly wrong and is always there to make things better for those around him. He is very forgivable — and a darn good dancer and singer. His regional acting credits include roles in several Shakespearean plays, Peter and the Starcatcher, and And Then There Were None.
Not introduced into the play until the second act is the lesbian couple Cordelia played by Hannah Searcy and Charlotte played by Samantha Eyler. These characters serve as a reminder of the times in which the play takes place — when lesbians, too, had come out of the closet. Charlotte is a successful physician who diagnoses Whizzer’s HIV/AIDs; Cordelia is a wannabe caterer who is not quite up on her Jewish cuisine. Most importantly, they are true friends to the tight-knit little family. Searcy has had roles in Fun Home, The Little Mermaid, Bright Star, and A Streetcar Named Desire. Eyler is both a teacher and performer in theatre. Her most recent roles have been in Fun Home, Into the Woods and The Inspector of Oz.
Do forgive this reviewer for saving the kid in the show for last, but Joshua Avery Begelman who plays son Jason deserves special recognition. Let’s face it: Falsettos is an adult play about adult problems with a super strong underpinning of sex. (FYI: There are few four-letter words in the play and the most skin you’ll see is when Marvin and Whizzer go to bed in their boxer shorts and just cuddle.)
Joshua who Jewish and is 12 years old, too young, some might say, to have a good understanding of the psycho/sexual antics of adults. From all appearances, this young man is far more mature and accomplished than most guys his age. In Falsettos, he sings, he dances, he is hurt and searching for answers where there is none to be found. Proud Mary is lucky to have landed Joshua for the crucial role of a Jewish boy about to have his bar mitzvah and pulled hither and yon by forces out of his control. Do take note, Joshua is a celebrity among us, having made his television debut at 8 years old on the CBS series Madam Secretary. He has also had roles in Marvel’s WandaVision and several appearances on Saturday Night Live. Way to go and bravo!
Falsettos, which premiered on Broadway in 1992, is actually two plays joined: First, there was March of the Falsettos in 1981; then there was Falsettoland in 1990, both one-act shows utilizing the same characters. The book, the play’s music and the song lyrics were all by William Finn, with James Lapine helping with the book. Originally, the final play was nominated for seven Tony Awards and won Best Book and Best Original Score. For the 2016 revival, it was nominated for five Tonys.
Once again, Proud Mary Theatre Company has pried open the genteel eyes of Upstate South Carolina to see what lies beyond the heterosexaul horizon. And one again, she has done this by selecting the best of the best stories to tell and by attracting the best actors in the region to be in roles that are controversial, challenging, and daring. Falsettos is set in a time and place that many of us only vaguely remember reading about, addressing issues that were usually heard in a whisper or a yell of bullying profanity. As a lover of theatre, I recommend Falsettos without hesitation. Even the genteel eyes will weep over the loss of love; hopefully they will shine with the hope for a better tomorrow.
Falsettos continues for one more weekend at the City of Greer Center for the Arts, 804 Trade St. in downtown Greer. Shows are Friday and Saturday at 7:30 pm with a 2 pm matinee on Saturday. Tickets are available now at proudmarytheatre.com.