In theater, it's rare—and fascinating—for the same characters to turn up in different shows—a bit like a surprise encounter with familiar old friends. This year, Tom Stoppard's trilogy The Coast of Utopia focused on a group of 19th-century Russian intellectuals who resurfaced across decades. In a lighter, but no less important, way, composer William Finn has tenderly developed the neurotic extended family that resurfaces throughout his ambitious musical triptych: In Trousers, March of the Falsettos, and Falsettoland. All three productions were performed as individual shows Off Broadway at Playwrights Horizons from 1979-1990; in 1992, the final two parts became Acts 1 and 2 of the Broadway musical Falsettos. Just in time for the first National Asian American Theater Festival, the National Asian American Theater Company (NAATCO) has revived its acclaimed production of Falsettoland, which it originally produced in 1998. Finn's seminal show (co-written with James Lapine) investigates such controversial topics as AIDS and homosexuality (especially provocative in the 1980s, when these characters originally appeared), and the grace and wit with which he handles this material give the show a timeless quality. Enlivened with an all-Asian cast, Finn's Jewish-themed musical takes on vibrant new life, and director Alan Muraoka has helmed an effervescent production that cuts to the heart of this poignant show.
Marvin is the conflicted center of Falsettos—he divorces his wife, Trina, when he falls in love with another man, Whizzer. In response, Trina promptly marries Mendel, Marvin's psychiatrist. By the time we reach Falsettoland, Marvin and Whizzer have dissolved their relationship, Mendel and Trina's marriage is a little stale, and Marvin and Trina's precocious son Jason is 12. As Jason's bar mitzvah approaches, Trina and Marvin try to keep their tempers in check, and when Whizzer appears at Jason's baseball game (invited by Jason), he and Marvin decide to try to make things work again. Add to this group Charlotte and Cordelia, the cheerful lesbian couple next door, and you meet one of the most odd and irresistible family units in musical theater.
The plot moves fluidly from song to song with little dialogue, and the brief show has a lovely lyrical quality to it—Finn's music can be both punchy and dreamy, and his often sweeping, impressionistic melodies are routinely interrupted by sharp, vivid epiphanies that wake up the characters. "The Baseball Game" is a particularly exemplary piece of writing. The peppy melody is deceptively simple, but the character development is densely layered—we learn an extraordinary amount about each character from minor asides and interactions (especially within Muraoka's deft staging).
The tragedy of Falsettoland, of course, arrives with Whizzer's AIDS diagnosis—"Something Bad Is Happening," warns Charlotte, who works as a doctor and watches the grave disease destroy the lives of healthy young men. Finn has a sensitive ear (and pen) for the subject of mortality, and he confronts his subject with a refreshing lack of the maudlin or clichéd. In the quartet "Unlikely Lovers," Marvin, Whizzer, Cordelia, and Charlotte ruminate on the stroke of fate that brought them all together, and music director W. Brent Sawyer has uncovered exquisite depths and textures within every crescendo of this moving ballad.
The cast rises to the occasion, and then some. Like Sarah Lambert's efficient set, which clicks into place with the simplicity and precision of Jason's Rubik's Cube, this group of performers is a colorful, interlocking, and delightful puzzle. Especially outstanding are Francis Jue, who achieves superb comic dexterity as the wiry Mendel, and Jason Ma, who uses his silky vocals to gently articulate Marvin's vulnerable qualities. This self-consciousness immediately surfaces whenever Whizzer is nearby, and it's easy to see why—Manu Narayan brings a glorious voice and thrilling sensitivity to a role that would be all too easy to oversimplify.
Ann Sanders (late of Avenue Q) turns in a fierce and fearless performance as the put-upon Trina. The unsung victim of this situation—just imagine planning your son's bar mitzvah with your ex-husband and his male lover in tow—her Trina is never pathetic, never self-pitying. Instead, she wrings the wit out of each circumstance, and in the thunderous ballad "Holding to the Ground," she proclaims her truth: "Life is never what you planned / Life is moments you don't understand." Still, the ties that bind Trina to this makeshift family are everlasting—this may be a dysfunctional group, but it's stuck together like glue.
As I watched this all-Asian cast romp through Finn's material, I wondered, What difference does this make? Sure, the Jewish jokes and references give us an extra wink, but really, one quickly forgets that these Asian actors are anything other than actors. But watching Sanders's vivid performance made me think again; if it weren't for NAATCO, she might never have played this role. The current revival of Les Misérables features several Asian performers, but it's only now that many Asian actors can expand their résumés beyond Flower Drum Song or Miss Saigon.
This powerful production is an important step in recasting and reimagining traditional roles. Finn certainly thinks so—along with Ann Harada (one of those Asian Les Miz stars), he contributed his own money to help fund this production.