In Critiques For The Culture’s latest contribution to GayRVA, Taneasha White and Brooke Taylor review the Richmond Triangle Players’ Falsettos, a musical telling the comedic, dramatic story of a family turned upside down.
William Finn and James Lapine’s 1981 Falsettos is a musical set in the 1980s and early 90s. The story surrounds Marvin, played by Matt Shofner, and his family — ex-wife Trina, played by Casey Daniel Payne, and son Jason, played by Rowan Sharma, as well as Marvin’s boyfriend, Whizzer, played by Durron Marquis Tyre. The story tells of the difficulty Trina and Jason have adjusting to Marvin’s new life, and how Mendel, a psychiatrist and Trina’s new boyfriend played by Dan Cimo, fits into this new family.
We saw this show recently at Richmond Triangle Players, and from the opening song, we knew we were going to enjoy the show. “Four Jews in a Room Bitching” was just as festive as it sounds. By design, the opening number usually sets the tone for the rest of the show. The lyrics let us know that this show was going to have some self-awareness, some self-deprecating humor. themes about homosexuality, and jokes about Jewish people. Here’s what we thought!
Because this was a musical written in the 1980s, there were some themes within some of the lyrics that made me cringe. For example, the lyric “I’d rather die than dry clean Marvin’s wedding gown,” from Trina’s song “I’m Breaking Down,” shows us two things. Firstly, that Trina still sees herself as the caretaker, even though she and Marvin are no longer together. Secondly, that she is somehow offended by the idea of her ex-husband showcasing anything that she could perceive as outside of masculinity.
This play dates from before bringing trauma-informed approaches and sensitivity to people’s identities was the norm — so it was acceptable to equate male gayness to femininity. We can chalk that up to this having been written in the 80s, but we also have to address that some of this ideology remains in society today.
There’s still a perception of queer men being softer (and by the way, I could write an entire dissertation on why that shouldn’t inherently be a bad thing), and queer women being rougher, and more “man-like.” Anytime I’m presented with that rigid adherence to the binary, I’m frustrated, but at the same time, I can give some room to the time period in which this was written. That doesn’t absolve the issue, but it definitely provides a good conversation point.
One of the more serious aspects of the show revolved around Whizzer contracting HIV, and it is hinted that he passed it to Marvin. This happens during the height of the AIDS crisis in the US, and I’m appreciative that this play showed a snapshot of what relationships had to endure during this time. Because that was not the main plotline, and you can only fit so much into two hours, they didn’t go as in-depth as you could. There were horrific circumstances for a lot of folks, especially folks within the LGBTQ community, during this time, making the title of epidemic anything but dramatic.
Falsettos drew you into this reality a bit, showing that the doctors were almost as scared and defeated as the patients, and that loved ones couldn’t do anything but make their partners and friends comfortable. Whizzer’s death was a sad section of this show, but definitely forced a reality check onto the audience.
Trina’s character was the strongest, and she was the lead woman. This show focused on gay folks and touched on the topic of the HIV/AIDS crisis that plagued our community in the late 80s/early 90s, which was monumentally important to address.
I appreciated the casting choices, especially Whizzer as a Black man — we know that it is easy to continue traditional casting, even if it doesn’t actually apply to the plot of the show, so I’m glad that Richmond Triangle Players stepped out a bit for this one. I appreciated it — and his voice was beautiful. I also loved the casting of an actual child for the role of Marvin’s son, Jason, played by Rowan Sharma. His performance was incredibly endearing, and I hope he continues to work in theatre as he gets older and develops his craft. 3 Black Fists.
I was entertained throughout the entire show. The casting choices were great — all of the characters were distinct and believable, and I appreciated the storytelling that was done. Ultimately I enjoyed the show. All of the characters were wonderfully portrayed and were believable. Trina seemed to be a crowd favorite. I would venture to say that folks involved in theatre have at least heard “I’m Breaking Down” at one point or another, and Payne definitely did a great performance of it. 4 Stars.
I am a little less enthusiastic about plays that are fully musicals. However, Falsettos was intriguing in nature and held my attention throughout. Knowing that this play gained notoriety in the late 80s/early 90s was helpful in understanding certain aspects of the play, yet some serious questions remain for me.
Question one: What type of job did the main character work so that he was able to financially support a housewife AND a househusband? He left for work everyday, was a self-proclaimed rich man, and accused Whizzer of only being interested in that part of him. Interestingly enough, when he returned from work, we heard nothing about his day. Where did you go, Marvin?
This is something that bugged me throughout the play, and the racial dynamics between Whizzer and Marvin added another layer of concern. Whizzer was the sexy man of color that was fetishized by Marvin, a familiar trope in queer circles. Marvin tried to cram Whizzer into a box that was never his to fit — and no amount of money can fix a situation like that.
Question two: Isn’t the knight in shining armor trope played out yet?
Even in a queer play, it seems that we cannot get away from writing roles for women that strip them of their agency. Trina was caught in a situation with Marvin and Whizzer that she did not consent to, and it seemed like Trina did not have much power to determine the dynamics of her home life. So, who will save the distressed princess in her tower of gloom? In rides Prince Charming! Except, Prince Charming is actually a therapist who manipulated his clients to ultimately get what he wanted — a marriage with Trina.
The play did show that Trina and Mendel’s relationship was not completely without challenges. However, the way that this couple ended up together was glossed over with plenty of humor and not enough reverence for the ways the Mendel betrayed his position of trust within their family. Trina was written as the helpless dame who is useless without a man taking care of her. I would love to see an adaption of Falsettos that makes Trina the main character and makes her viewpoint much more developed and complex.
Question three: What am I supposed to sympathize with Marvin about?
I often found myself wondering if other audience goers had the same view of the main character as I did. To me, he was a selfish person who “wanted it all” without fully realizing the amount of pain that he put the rest of the characters through. I can understand falling in love with someone new and feeling the whirlwind of emotions that accompanies that newness. I can also understand that Marvin still loved his wife (in some way) and did not want to disrupt the family stability for their son, Jason. However, I cannot sympathize with a character who never had an epiphany regarding the level of damage that he caused.
When Trina decides to divorce Marvin, he lashes out in anger. Once he has Whizzer to himself, they fight constantly and Marvin hurls insults his way. I do not believe that Marvin ever has a redemption from these manipulative moments, and it makes his character highly unlikable.
Critiques for the Culture: Trina and Whizzer were central to the plot but I would have liked to see more of a backstory for both. 2 Black Fists.
Overall: All of the actors performed very well. There were moments that stood out as amazing, like Casey Daniel Payne’s rendition of “I’m Breaking Down.” Overall, I enjoyed the entire experience and would recommend it to others. However, the content of the play should be adapted in future iterations to reflect women as being whole on their own — especially in a queer production. 3.5 Stars.
Tickets are still available for the final week of Falsettos, presented by Richmond Triangle Players. Performances will take place every night from Wednesday, October 2 through Saturday, October 5, starting at 8 PM, at the Robert B. Moss Theatre, located at 1300 Altamont Ave in Scott’s Addition. For tickets and additional info, visit rtriangle.org.
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