Ganymede Arts — Washington’s only expressly LGBT-centric company — returns to the boards this fall with “Falsettos,” a musical tale of love, loss and the modern family set in New York City just prior to and during the beginning years of the AIDS crisis.
Deftly staged by Ganymede’s gay artistic director Jeffrey Johnson (who also stars), the spare production trains the spotlight on relationships with all their wondrous and endless possibilities.
Marvin (Johnson) wants a close-knit family. Not so easy when he’s left wife Trina (Lisa Carrier Baker) for lover Whizzer (Michael Vitaly Sazonov) while young son Jason (Noah Chiet) is rather unhappily shuttling between both of their Manhattan apartments. Marvin’s familial aspirations becomes even more of a long shot when the ex announces her engagement to his psychiatrist Mendel (Tony Gudell), just as Marvin’s own relationship is falling apart.
Marvin isn’t easily daunted, especially when it comes to getting what he wants. Two years later – on the eve of his son’s bar mitzvah – things improve as Marvin and Whizzer get back together. But it takes tragedy to ultimately make Marvin’s wish for that tight family a reality.
A 1992 Broadway hit, “Falsettos” was the result of merging two one-act musicals, “March of the Falsettos” and “Falsettoland,” that were produced individually in 1981 and 1990. Composer William Finn’s sung-through 39-song score incorporates varied styles of music including clever ensemble numbers (“Four Jews in Room Bitching,”) ballads (“You Gotta Die Sometime”) and even a lullaby (“Father to Son”).
Like the show’s lyrical score, James Lapine’s book is both funny and heartbreaking. With its references to yuppies and outmoded technology, as well as its focus on a new and terrifying disease killing mostly gay men, “Falsettos” is part of the past but its themes of compassion and love are timeless.
Over the years, Ganymede has made its home in a lot of places including the Church Street Theater and the back room at Miss Pixie’s. In many ways its current venue – Noi’s Nook (a theater space in the go mama go! gift shop on the 14th Street corridor) — makes the most sense. The shop’s original proprietor Noi Chudnoff served as president of Ganymede’s board before her sudden death in 2007.
By taking an intimate, cabaret approach to the show, Johnson slyly makes this latest improvised (but entirely comfortable) venue work for him. Almost all the actors have a solo moment, either sharing musical director/accompanist Christopher Wingert’s onstage piano bench or seated on a nearby stool, singing one of Finn’s memorable ballads. These moments are among the night’s best.
Ganymede’s “Falsettos” features a very likable cast that jells. As Marvin, Johnson shares chemistry with his lover Whizzer (even when they’re fighting) and Jason, his sometimes sarcastic tween. There’s chemistry between Carrier Baker’s resilient Trina and Gudell’s besotted Mendel. By and large, the actors do justice to Finn’s sometimes tricky score and their performances are smartly underplayed.
Dennis Kitmore’s simple-but-fun costumes adhere to a gray palette with pops of bright blue (a hair band, shoe laces, a tie and Jason’s yarmulke).
There’s a heart-tugging scene in the second act where it’s clear that Marvin has achieved his dream — a close knit family. Marvin, Jason, Trina, Mendel and “the lesbians next door,” Dr. Charlotte (Barbara Papendorp) and her perky caterer partner Cordelia (Tammy Roberts), have gathered in love and support during a family crisis. A following bar mitzvah scene that I won’t spoil (but suffice to say it doesn’t include a billion canapés and a haul of gifts) beautifully reiterates the modern family message.
When “Falsettos” premiered in New York it was praised for innovatively combining elements of Broadway and off-Broadway. Today, it doesn’t feel particularly new in any way, but Ganymede’s energetic cast and Johnson’s inventive cabaret spin are enough to justify the production, especially for those who’ve never seen it.
Through Oct. 10
Noi’s Nook, 1809 14th St., N.W.
(Photo: Actor Michael Sazonov as Whizzer; photo by Ward Morrison and courtesy of Ganymede Arts)