Review: FALSETTOS at Actor’s Express hit high notes

By Jody Tuso-Key — Managing Editor — Photo Credits Casey Gardner

March 26, 2019

Love comes in many form and families in many varieties. The traditional nuclear family has taken on new forms in the past 50 years, as people have become more tolerant and accepting of same-sex couples. FALSETTOS is an exploration of a non-traditional family, and opened at Actor’s Express this past weekend.

Originally premiering on Broadway in 1992, this iconic play was nominated for 7 Tony awards, and took home Best Book of a Musical and Best Original Score. With a book by William Finn and James Lapine and Lyrics by William Finn, these awards were well deserved. The story is superb and the music enchanting with beautiful melodies, meaningful lyrics, and mesmerizing harmonies, and Actor’s Express didn’t miss a note, with every performer giving their all.

This is a story that was ahead of it’s time, exploring beyond a traditional nuclear family and imagining a new kind of normal, where Marvin, our tragic hero, lives with his ex-wife, Trina and his son, Jason and his lover, Whizzer. Marvin envisions co-parenting as he continues to assume the role of breadwinner. He casts Trina aside as domestic goddess in exchange for Whizzer, seeing Whizzer as his pretty new significant other who should have dinner ready for him when he arrives home. Whizzer is young, handsome, and a player who resents Marvin’s self-indulgence. Trina feels cast aside and struggles with her identity and self-worth. Caught up in the family Drama is Jason, Trina and Marvin’s son. Jason enjoys playing chess against himself and is discovering that he likes girls. From Jason’s perspective, this is a coming of age story, as he embarks upon his Bar Mitzvah in act II, but it is a coming of age story for the rest of the family as well as they mature into the new dynamic they’ve created. Then there’s the family’s psychiatrist, Mendel, who falls in love with Trina and subsequently becomes part of the family. Add in Cordelia and Dr. Charlotte, the family’s lesbian next-door neighbors in Act II, and you have an ensemble that weaves a story about passion, love, and relationships that is as compelling as it is relevant.

The tone of the story is set in the opening number “Falsettoland/About Time” with its first words, “Four Jews in a room bitching,” sung by the men. It’s a funny and satirical number that sets the tone for production. There are plenty of laughs to be had, yet this play runs the gamut of human emotion–frustration, anger, indifference, sorrow, and grief.

Director Freddie Ashley has assembled a talented cast and crew for this show. I was impressed with each element as it was pieced together to create a puzzle as beautifully complex as the show itself. The attention to detail paid to every aspect of the show is much appreciated by this humble audience member. The seemingly simple set designed by James V. Ogden is breathtaking, accented with beautiful lighting by Joseph P. Monaghan III. Music director Alli Lingenfelter has done an excellent job creating goose-bump moments both vocally and instrumentally. Costume designer Alan Yeong and Properties designer Chrisopher Dills captured the period of the late 1970s-early 1980s. I espeically enjoyed Trina’s gaucho dress in act one and the vintage Pyrex dish she sets on the table.

Jessica De Maria plays Trina, a woman whose dream was to be a dutiful wife and mother. She feels rejected and is dejected, but finds love with the family psychiatrist. Jessica De Maria delivers a powerful performance which reveals the complexity of a woman who is willing to sacrifice her happiness for the good of her family.

Jordan Dell Harris as Whizzer is handsome and personable, yet he takes what would seem on the surface to be a simple character and reveals there’s more to this likable and misunderstood human being. Jordan brings humanity to the role and we find ourselves falling in love with his character every bit as much as Marvin does.

Craig Waldrip’s portrayal of Marvin as a chauvinistic man who expects Whizzer to fill Trina’s shoes as the dutiful domestic goddess is convincing and authentic. Even though he’s a bit of an ass, we can’t help but care for him as he embarks on a voyage of self-discovery, realizing that life isn’t what he demands or expects. Waldrip does an admirable job walking the tightrope between someone the audience abhors to someone who is capable of love and being lovable.

The role of Jason is double cast between Vinny Montague and Alex Newberg. I saw Alex Newberg in the role, and this young 9th grader from Holy Innocents’ Episcopal School is Atlanta is a rare find. His acting and vocals rival the adults on the stage and he holds his own against this cast of seasoned professionals. While I didn’t see Vinny Montague’s performance, I enjoyed him in Aurora’s Newsies, and I’m sure his performance is just as spectacular.

I delighted in Kandice Arrington and Kylie Brown as Dr. Charlotte and Cordelia. I previously had the pleasure of seeing Kandice in The Full Monty and Jesus Christ Superstar at Atlanta Lyric, and Kylie in Octaroon at Actor’s Express. It was good to see them on the stage again. These woman had good chemistry, beautiful vocals and rounded out the cast nicely.

The final analysis is FALSETTOS is a musical whose time has come, and Actor’s Express has taken the time to unpack a trunk full of nostalgia ripe with today’s relevant issues and do it justice. FALSETTOS plays through April 28th. Tickets can be purchased at https://www.actors-express.com/plays/falsettos or by calling 404-607-SHOW (7469).

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