If Broadway plays are notorious for taking a long time to address contemporary mores, Broadway musicals are slower still. This made the successful 1992 run of William Finn and James Lapine’s gay-themed musical Falsettos a valued breakthrough.
The piece has been little-seen in the UK, with only a limited four-week West End run for March of the Falsettos, the first act of this now two-act piece. Sadly, if the original creatives were waiting for a production to kick-start its British life, they are likely going to have to wait longer.
Finn doesn’t keep his cards close to his chest. The title of his smart opening number is Four Jews in a Room Bitching and that’s exactly what we get. It’s high-spirited, up front and out there. Unfortunately, director and choreographer Tara Overfield-Wilkinson sets that as the abiding tone in an over-deliberate production that tries so hard to please that it’s enervating to watch.
The Jews in question are Marvin (Daniel Boys), who has finally pursued his true sexuality by leaving his wife for younger, cooler Whizzer (Oliver Savile). Then there’s his ex-wife Trina (Laura Pitt-Pulford) and their shrink Mendel (Joel Montague), plus 12-year-old Jason who, as all nice Jewish boys do, is coming face-to-face with his bar mitzvah. In the second act, two (underwritten) women arrive – “the lesbians next door” – whom even Natasha J Barnes and Gemma Knight-Jones cannot save.
From there on in, everyone obsessively examines themselves – and each other – falling in and out of love, with the stakes climbing as the bar mitzvah approaches until, in the second act in 1981, Whizzer falls unexpectedly ill with a mysterious disease that we, with hindsight, know all about.
Lapine’s book is all in the structuring, since there is no spoken dialogue. Every member of the able cast handles Finn’s skilled, mile-a-minute lyrics, perfectly aligned with his neurotic vocal lines, with impressive aplomb – most especially, on press night, by the young Albert Atack.
Jason is riskily knowing but Atack’s performance is the opposite: precise but beautifully relaxed. The latter quality, rare in a young performer, is, unfortunately, rarer still in this production. Too often, the actors over-emote, when holding back would allow us to feel their emotions far more strongly.
The funniest number, The Baseball Game, wittily punches up the absurdity as everyone watches Jason attempting sport (traditionally, this Jew writes, a seriously non-Jewish activity). This is almost the only moment that feels rooted in New York, thanks to wandering accents and a placeless, hyper-childlike design complete with over-energetic, highly coloured lighting.
The cast – and the writing – are all utterly sincere but, despite abundant good intentions, it just feels effortful.