June 26, 2019

Princeton Summer Theater Opens its Season with “Falsettos”; Provocative, Bittersweet Musical Gets a Lively, Colorful Production

“FALSETTOS”: Performances are underway for Princeton Summer Theater’s production of “Falsettos.” Directed by PST Artistic Director Daniel Krane, the musical runs through June 30 at Princeton University’s Hamilton Murray Theater. Jason (Hannah Chomiczewski, second from left) comes of age, with the unlikely help of the adults in his life: his mother Trina (Bridget McNiff, left); his father’s lover, Whizzer (Dylan Blau Edelstein, second from right); and his father Marvin (Michael Rosas, right). (Photo by Kirsten Traudt)

By Donald H. Sanborn III

My father says that love is the most beautiful thing in the world,” sings 10-year-old Jason, in a recurring motif in the musical Falsettos. “I think chess is the most beautiful thing, not love.”

Princeton Summer Theater opens its 2019 season — which, a press release promises, “will explore love in all its forms,” — with Falsettos. This provocative tragicomedy, which centers on a Jewish boy’s coming of age in a broken home, has a sung-through score by William Finn. Finn’s agitated music is mostly uptempo, though there are reflective ballads that prevent the show from becoming relentless. Finn’s lyrics are conversational, intricately rhymed, and often wry. Finn, who happens to be Jewish, is not unlike Mel Brooks in being unafraid to play with stereotypes.

The show, whose book Finn wrote with James Lapine, is a duology of one-act musicals: March of the Falsettos (1981) and Falsettoland (1990). The titles allude to the near-adolescent Jason’s voice, and the adult characters’ imitation of it in the earlier musical’s title song. Both shows are sequels to Finn’s 1979 musical In Trousers. Falsettos opened on Broadway in 1992, and was revived in 2016; both productions were directed by Lapine.

Daniel Krane, the artistic director of Princeton Summer Theater, confidently directs this lively production of Falsettos. In a program note, Krane remembers that Finn began writing the show “ten years after the Stonewall riots at a gay bar in New York City helped ignite the modern American movement for LGBTQ rights. The show captures the whirlwind of confusion and possibility of the time when embracing queer love openly became a real possibility for many Americans.” Krane finds resonance in the musical’s portrayal of “a chosen, modern family.”

Jason’s juxtaposition of love against chess is an apt distillation of the show’s themes, as the characters are by turns caring and combative. It is understandable that Jason prefers chess; moving the pieces gives him a measure of control when he often is a pawn of the adults in his life.

In keeping with the concept of games, the set by Jeffrey Van Velsor consists of shelves filled with toys. In the center are eight connected columns of cubicles which, fittingly, resemble a chessboard.

Under the direction of keyboardist Amber Lin, the four-piece orchestra cleanly plays Finn’s brisk, staccato opening notes. Marvin, wearing a bright red suit, makes his entrance by riding a toy wagon, and soon makes a call on a toddler’s telephone. At first this appears to be an audacious way of getting the audience’s attention, but it too will prove to be linked to the musical’s themes.

There are song titles such as “The Games I Play” and “The Year of the Child.” Trina opens a dollhouse before she, Mendel, Jason, and Whizzer sing a number titled “Making a Home.” Elsewhere, Marvin drily remarks, “It’s about time to grow up and face the music.”

Most of Jules Peiperl’s costumes are as colorful as the large Lego blocks that fill one of the shelves. Trina wears a bright yellow dress, while Mendel wears a light blue sweater. Jason wears a shirt consisting of green and black stripes, while Whizzer is given a purple scarf. In tandem with Megan Berry’s lighting, the costumes give the production the appearance of a comic strip.

Indeed, the show’s opening number happens to recall that of a 1956 musical based on the comic strip Li’l Abner. Both shows start by letting their characters break the fourth wall to introduce themselves. Falsettos’ jovial beginning is a bold juxtaposition against serious events that transpire, particularly in the latter half.

The first act is set in 1979. Marvin, a rich New Yorker who is Jason’s father, sings about his wish for “A Tight-Knit Family.” But he has left Jason’s mother Trina for another man, Whizzer, who does not share Marvin’s desire for monogamy. Marvin, Trina, and Jason all visit a rather ineffective psychiatrist, Mendel, who enters a relationship with Trina.

In the second act, which takes place in 1981, Jason is almost 13, and the adults plan his bar mitzvah. We meet Dr. Charlotte and Cordelia, lesbian lovers who befriend the other characters, and take care of Whizzer when his life is threatened by AIDS — to which Dr. Charlotte refers as a virus that “has been found.”

The role of Jason was played by male actors in both the original Broadway production and the revival. Here, however, the character is portrayed by Hannah Chomiczewski. This casting effectively ties into Jason’s anxieties about his gender identity; he pointedly edits his “My father says that love…” comment to prefer “girls.”

Chomiczewski beautifully captures Jason’s insecurities, as well as his justifiable frustration and wariness of the adults in his life. One of Jason’s key functions is to react to everything going on, and Chomiczewski is able to convey much with facial expressions. She also gives Jason a distinct, boyish voice.

In her delivery of “Another Miracle of Judaism,” a climactic number in which Jason promises that he will go through with his bar mitzvah if God will heal Whizzer, Chomiczewski is careful to use the edgy, questioning tone with which she has infused the character throughout. This ensures that the moment — a high point of the show — is genuinely moving rather than maudlin.

Michael Rosas, a tenor with a sturdy, authoritative voice, delivers an impassioned performance as the self-aware Marvin, successfully conveying the character’s complicated mixture of caring intentions and controlling, petulant selfishness. A highlight is his rendition of “Father to Son,” a moving ballad in which Marvin implores Jason, “Be my son,” and assures him, “You’ll be … a man, kid.”

Along with Rosas, soprano Bridget McNiff gives the strongest vocal performance, as the justifiably disgruntled Trina. McNiff is a comic tour de force in her rendition of “I’m Breaking Down,” a number in which she is eerily cheerful while singing lines such as “The only thing that’s breaking up is my family, but me? I’m breaking down!” McNiff puts her entire body into the number, making the most of Jhor van der Horst’s choreography. She is equally successful in the gentler “Holding to the Ground.”

Dylan Blau Edelstein infuses Whizzer with earnest, slightly dangerous charm, as well as an intense gaze. His performance of “You Gotta Die Sometime,” in which Whizzer tries to come to terms with his worsening condition, gives the number its full poignancy.

The cast is ably rounded out by Chamari White-Mink as the forceful Dr. Charlotte, and Michelle Navis as the caring Cordellia. Justin Ramos has affable stage presence as Mendel; he and Chomiczewski make “Everyone Hates His Parents” the comic highlight it needs to be, in the more somber second act.

Falsettos may be placed in its time by certain plot elements, and references made by its characters. But the show’s coming-of-age aspect makes it universal, as does a spiritual component in the exploration of Jason’s nascent turn to faith as a reaction to the likelihood of loss. Princeton Summer Theater’s well-acted, energetic production deftly balances this bittersweet musical’s comedic and serious elements, and illustrates its themes in creative, surprising ways.

Falsettos will play at the Hamilton Murray Theater in Murray Dodge Hall, Princeton University, through June 30. For tickets, show times, and further information call (732) 997-0205 or visit www.princetonsummertheater.org/falsettos.