High Notes

Arizona Onstage Productions' 'Falsettoland' exudes professionalism and a lot of heart.

The first half of the musical Falsettoland is about being Jewish. The second is about being gay. As a whole, though, Falsettoland is about friendship, love and family, and how people create bonds regardless of little details like blood and sexual orientation.

The 80-minute show by William Finn and James Lapine, first produced in New York in 1990, percolates along enjoyably, and in the beginning, you settle in for what seems like agreeable light entertainment. There's nothing really profound here, but the writing is unpretentious without being simple, and the characters and their relationships seem true. Before long, you find yourself wanting to take these people, flaws and all, into your own life, and in the end--even though you've been able to predict the story arc from early on--you can't help being moved by it all, whether you're gay or straight, Jew or gentile, male or female, cynic or sentimentalist.

Pulsing at the center of the plot is Marvin, a middle-aged New Yorker. The first number in Falsettoland recaps what has befallen Marvin and the other characters in two earlier Finn-Lapine musicals, particularly March of the Falsettos. In the earlier work, Marvin has realized that he's gay and leaves his wife, Trina, and son, Jason, for a handsome young man with the unfortunate name Whizzer. Marvin is desperate to hold all the people in his life together, but by the end of March of the Falsettos, he has salvaged only his relationship with Jason; everything else has fallen apart, including his affair with Whizzer. Even Marvin's own shrink, Mendel, has taken up with Trina.

In Falsettoland, the year is 1981. Jason's bar mitzvah is approaching, and the preparations aren't doing anything to heal Marvin and Trina's ruptured relationship. Jason is losing sleep over the tension between his parents; Mendel is trying to look out for Jason's emotional well-being; and Whizzer creeps cautiously back to Marvin. Meanwhile, the nice lesbian couple next door joins the fun: Cordelia, a caterer, is struggling to come up with a viable kosher nouvelle cuisine for the bar mitzvah, and Dr. Charlotte is struggling to understand an unfathomable new disease striking down her patients. Of course, just as Marvin and Whizzer are reconciled and settle into a loving, stable routine, AIDS claims a victim within this spinning family circle.

Although a good many sniffles punctuate the applause at the end, most of Falsettoland is quite funny. Jason's presence on a Little League team allows for some wry observations on the futility of Jewish boys trying to play baseball, and Mendel isn't quite the comforting figure he'd like to be; his advice to Jason is that everyone hates his parents--and when you grow up and have kids, they'll hate you, too.

What's endearing about these characters is that they try so hard and so naïvely to achieve things that are so far beyond them--peacefully organizing the perfect bar mitzvah, not hurting the parents' feelings, maintaining sexual thrill in a settled relationship, fighting AIDS, cooking nouvelle kosher.

Except for a few scattered lines, the entire play is sung. As with so many modern musicals, the tunes don't stay with you past the final bows, but at least Finn's music makes a good impression while it lasts, largely through a few nice rhythmic tricks and interesting harmonic shifts.

Arizona Onstage Productions, a local company with a low profile, is presenting a wonderful version of Falsettoland that is satisfying in almost every way. True, some voices seemed slightly frayed at times last Friday, and there was a tendency to sneak cautiously into a few of the high notes. But none of this could detract from the overall professionalism and sheer heart of the production.

David Alexander Johnston is a good-natured, extremely likable (if confused) Marvin, and he has an especially lovely moment with his love song, "What Can I Say." Stephanie Sikes is a canny Trina, able to be angry without becoming shrill, and always suggesting a core of decency beneath her frustration. Mickey Nugent is a very appealing Mendel; Sean Zimmerman more than just a pretty boy as Whizzer; Marlene Montes a kick as the eager-to-please Cordelia; and Marsha Bagwell a source of strength despite self-doubt as Dr. Charlotte. Ryan DeLuca, who will be a freshman this fall at Catalina Foothills High School, measures up to the rest of the company, avoiding all the pitfalls of kid actors (he's never too fast, too emphatic or too self-consciously cute) and turning in a fully believable portrayal of Jason.

Director Carol Calkins guides the actors with wit, grace and a light touch, and producer Kevin Johnson deserves special praise for assembling such a fine artistic team. The only complaint one could make is that March of the Falsettos and Falsettoland exist as a two-act combo called Falsettos, and with a Falsettoland production this satisfying, it's a pity that we couldn't have more.

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