High Notes for FALSETTOS, Now Playing at Empire Stage (Review)

Multi-accomplished South Florida actor/director/producer … and on, Larry Buzzeo, fresh from his successful inaugural season as founder and artistic director of ArtBuzz Theatrics at Empire Stage, is returning to our beloved Flagler Village blackbox with the sung-through musical, FALSETTOS. You heard right: This far too seldom produced, full-scale William Finn (music and lyrics) and James Lapine (book with Finn) musical that was nominated for seven and won two Tony Awards (for Best Musical and Best Score) in 1992 – and was then nominated for Best Revival in 2016 – has finally arrived! ArtBuzz and Empire Stage are presenting “Falsettos” in Fort Lauderdale from April 26 through May 19. 

Our all-local production features some of South Florida’s most notable actors and stage crew. Starting with director/music director Michael Ursua who’s also successfully filling that role with Arts Center Management’s Broadway series. He’s joined by pro lighting and sound designers Preston Bircher and David Hart, and stage manager Joseph Long. My best advice is to reserve your tickets now because Empire Stage only holds 49 seats. (The Sunday I attended was completely sold out.) With only three rows of ideal, sight-line seating, patrons can feel like royalty at an exclusive command performance for the entire two-and-a-half hour (with one 15-minute intermission) show.

“Four Jews in a Room Bitching” and wielding sticks harkens back to biblical times. Photo by Amy Mahon.

It takes a load of work and chutzpah for a young company to tackle such a major production. But then again, if it’s your company, you get to call the shots. So why not go for a long-held passion project? “The score is beautiful,” Buzzeo enthuses, “ranging from energetic Sondheimish patter songs to beautiful and poignant ballads. And I have seen few stories that highlight and examine the human condition quite like this show does.”

The show revolves around a middle-class, Jewish-American family in 1979 and 1981. They are both typical and, in some ways, highly atypical socially – pushed to create a uniquely different but still loving “family” unit well ahead of the curve. It was not  unusual for gay men to hide their true identity during that period – especially from their wives and children. When Marvin, a neurotic “man child,” sensitively portrayed by Larry Buzzeo, falls for younger gay player Whizzer (Christopher Ross-Dybash), he can live the lie no longer. He divorces his loving wife Trina (Seana Nicol), and so no longer lives with his precocious and far more mature, but socially isolated, 12-1/2 year old, soon-to-be-Bar Mitzvahed son, Jason (Jackson Goddard). 

Read my lips. Jason (Jackson Goddard) informs concerned mom Trina (Seana Nicol) for
the umpteenth time that he enjoys spending time alone and playing chess and won’t see a psychiatrist. Photo by Amy Mahon.

Still Marvin naively wants it all. To continue to be embraced by his original family – as in loved by his wife and son — while pursuing a monogamous relationship with his lover, whom he’d thoughtlessly assigned the role of “wife” to keep house and cook his dinners. And when the world doesn’t acquiesce to his immature plans, Marvin confides his troubles at recurring therapy sessions with psychiatrist Mendel (Steven Fuentes). He encourages his wife and son to see Mendel as well, which ends up bringing this rational but also emotionally needy outsider into their lives in an ethically shocking (at least to me) intimate way. But then again, there’s nothing in Marvin’s circle that fits traditional societal norms … yet eventually works out for everyone, nonetheless.

While Act 1 often presents as kitschy, silly and simply hilarious – with some numbers resembling insanely-costumed SNL (Saturday Night Live) song-and-dance skits, Act 2 increases the drama barometer exponentially. Taking place in 1981, during “Nancy Reagan’s White House,” it showcases the early pain and anxiety concerning a new “Something Bad is Happening” virus, not yet known as AIDS. 

Jason’s (Jackson Goddard) unusual blended family cheers him on to a miraculous hit in
“The Baseball Game.” Standing from left: Christopher Ross-Dybash, Casey Sacco,
Heather Simsay, Larry Buzzeo. Seated: Seana Nicol and Steven Fuentes. Photo by Amy Mahon.

Here we meet fearful and frustrated Dr. Charlotte (Heather Simsay) who works on the front lines of the new epidemic. She also happens to live next door with her lesbian lover, caterer Cordelia (Casey Sacco). These two, Sacco especially, join the cast as a much needed breath of fresh air and humor amongst the incipient AIDS tragedy with their oft-repeated introduction of: (We’re) “The lesbians next door.” Their compassion — and “shiksa” (non-Jewish female) Cordelia’s embrace of traditional Eastern European Jewish cuisine in proffered appetizer trays — quickly convert the pair to bonafied loving members of Marvin’s unique extended family. Thus adding yet another example of what producer/lead actor Larry Buzzeo sees as the play’s characters and themes:

“There are no villains or heroes in ‘Falsettos’ … the show accurately presents much humor. The reality is that people are very flawed, and yet we learn to still understand and love one another in the strangest and most unorthodox of situations. For me, the through-lines are: 1. Adults at their core are still children and, 2. Love is the most beautiful thing in the world.”

Casey Sacco and Heather Simsay bring a loving breath of fresh air to Act 2 as the “The lesbians next door.” Photo by Amy Mahon.

But to get to the heart of the story, it can’t hurt to begin with a belly laugh. If you’re not familiar with this groundbreaking musical, Act 1: March of the Falsettos’ opening number of “Four Jews in a Room Bitching” can be quite a shocker as the actors (including Trina and Jason sporting taped-on beards, which make “five” but who’s counting?) dance onto the stage dressed in biblical robes traditionally associated with the days of Abraham. Then, in true farce mode, they proceed to fight one another with sticks. 

The scene forecasts that reflections on aspects of Judaism, both serious and comical, will permeate the show. Another hilarious song comments on Jason’s failing attempts to hit a ball when he’s up at bat. “The Baseball Game,” which totally skewers Jews’ lack of ability in sports, appears in Act 2: Falsettoland. It comes right after Jason’s relief at discovering he didn’t inherit his dad’s “homo gene.” And now his biggest worry is which girls to invite to his Bar Mitzvah, and will they come, and so asks for heavenly intervention in “The Miracle of Judaism.”

Here I must interject that seventh grader Jackson Goddard, who is exactly the right age for the part and a full-fledged member of the company, appearing frequently on stage — both in group numbers and striking solos – is an absolute wonder to behold! Or maybe he’s just playing himself: a super smart and talented kid who’s more than on par with the grown ups! We’re glad to see he’s at least solved one life dilemma when, for the third time, his solo replaces his typical words “games” or “chess” with “girls” as he sings out: “My father says that love is the most beautiful thing in the world. I think GIRLS are the most beautiful thing. Not love.”

Beware of desperate housewife Trina (Seana Nicol) as she wields a sharp knife in “I’m Breaking Down.” Photo by Amy Mahon.

Another superstar surprise is the incredibly versatile Seana Nicol as Trina whose performance is all the more impressive given that she was a last-minute crisis replacement. You’d never know she wasn’t born to play Trina – with all her emotional angst, anger, and high comedy. And her vocals are sit-up-and-take-notice spectacular! Nicol gets to show off all her thespian attributes while vigorously chopping up a banana in “I’m Breaking Down.” This knockout scene alone is worth the price of admission.

I could go on and on, as almost every song – and being a sung-through musical all songs! – can be considered highlights. But I don’t want to divulge too much and ruin the many campy surprises and deeply touching moments. You’ll know what I’m talking about when you discover favorites of your own.

In style, content, and message, “Falsettos” was way ahead of its time — even when first partially produced on Off Broadway as one acts in the early 1980s. This out-of-the-ordinary musical can still startle, shock … and delight. Leave you shaken by life’s unforeseen tragedies and hopeful that humanity’s inherent goodness (we can only hope this is true!) will prevail. If you’ve seen it before, a revisit in today’s insanely divisive environment is well worth your time. If you haven’t seen it, don’t miss the opportunity to experience this unique theatrical endeavor that will leave you laughing, crying, and hopefully looking at the people around you with a little more understanding and kindness. 

ArtBuzz Theatrics & Empire Stage present FALSETTOS by William Finn and James Lapine through May 19 at Empire Stage, 1140 N. Flagler Drive, Fort Lauderdale 33304. For tickets, go to https://empirestage.com or call 954-678-1496.

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