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High Notes

The audience at the 26th Street Theatre's production of William Finn's musical Falsettoland can be as idiosyncratic as the play itself. In South Florida (and especially in Broward and Palm Beach counties), where theater audiences usually consist of retirees age 65 and older, a recent Sunday's full house consisted of an entirely different demographic group. While the obligatory gray heads occupied the first half-dozen or so rows of the recently renovated 290-seat theater, the rest of the audience was primarily composed of gay male couples -- and not the bulging-pecs boxer-walkers of Lincoln Road but regular guys in their late thirties, early forties, and beyond.

In form, Falsettoland is the kind of Jewish-themed musical comedy that would normally be a perfect fit at Broward Stage Door Theatre in Coral Springs, but the punch lines here reach far beyond the Borscht Belt. Falsettoland is a compassionate musical comedy that places homosexuality and AIDS not on the fringes of society but smack-dab in the center of the American family.

After wanting to direct Falsettoland for years, Dan Kelley, former artistic director of the Broward Stage Door, got his chance when that company acquired the 26th Street Theatre in Wilton Manors. With Tony Award-winning music and lyrics by William Finn, Falsettoland is the final part of Finn's "Marvin" trilogy, which began with In Trousers and continued with March of the Falsettos. In the latter work, Marvin left his wife Trina and son Jason for a man, Whizzer.

As the show begins, Jason (Josey Montana McCoy) is preparing for his bar mitzvah as his divorced parents Marvin (Kelley, who also directs) and Trina (Bridget Conners) use the event as a chessboard and their son as a pawn. The celebration takes a turn for the tragic when Whizzer (Shane R. Tanner), with whom Jason is very close, begins showing symptoms of AIDS. Throw into this mix Trina's psychiatrist husband, Mendel (Bill Perlach), and the lesbians next door -- Cordelia (Vicki White), a would-be kosher caterer, and her partner, Dr. Charlotte (Mary Falconer) -- and you have the ingredients for a delightfully unconventional musical that is a welcome deviation from the commercially successful crowd pleasers Broward Stage Door typically stages.

Originally produced in the early '90s but set a decade before that, Falsettoland could easily be seen as a period piece or, even worse, as outdated. Introduced in the play by the song "Something Bad Is Happening," AIDS is a new and mysterious crisis that seems to afflict only gay men. Yet the play still seems topical; recent news accounts serve as a reminder that AIDS, while not approaching the apocalyptic proportions it has in Africa, remains a public health threat in the United States, especially in poorer communities, and that a lack of awareness and education is largely to blame for its persistence.

As the play progresses, the young, athletic Whizzer begins to deteriorate as a result of the malady (which is never named). I got a chill when I realized that a large number of the middle-aged audience members would have been right around the character's age in the early '80s and very likely had lost friends back then. In this sense the play is an homage. Director Kelley asserts this by incorporating a replica of the AIDS Memorial Quilt into the backdrop at the end of the play, a piece of scenery not called for in the original production. Although inspired by Falsettoland's music, Kelley was also compelled to depict a time period to which he himself feels very connected. "In 1980 I left my small town in Indiana and found myself in New York in the thick of the theater scene," he remembers. "All of a sudden, the men around me were dropping 30 pounds and shitting blood. People started calling it "gay cancer.'"

Kelley also had very specific artistic goals in mind for the play; thanks to his innovative directorial choices, Falsettoland's dark theme never overrides the comic aspect of the play. The original production runs without an intermission, but Kelley has added one to create a sharp contrast between the more upbeat opening of the play and its sober conclusion. The tone of the first half is happy, sunny, and replete with punchy lyrics and zany Jewish humor. The last line of act 1 is "Everything will be all right," which Trina sings in "Holding to the Ground." When the lights come up on a hospital bed in the second half, the audience knows the play has taken a dramatic turn. Victor Capecce's simple and straightforward set design allows the audience to focus on the actors, music, and plot without losing a sense of place.

Falsettoland's musical score is both sophisticated and compassionate. One of the strongest aspects of the music is Finn's resourceful use of the refrain, converting it into an axis around which various meanings rotate. A perfect example is Dr. Charlotte's rendition of "Something Bad Is Happening," which transforms in tone from vague and speculative in the first half to bewildered and frightened when it reenters the play in the second act.

The actors also hold up their end, unfalteringly singing their way through unconventional partnerships, arguments, reconciliations, terminal illness, bar mitzvahs, and racquetball games. There's not a weak singer in the troupe, although the sound system muddles the voices a bit and Whizzer hits a couple of flat notes in the second half. White has a nice soprano; Conners has a resonance in her singing voice and an integrity in her portrayal of Trina that add depth to the piece. (She also seems to have a penchant for performing in plays in which terminal illness is the central theme. Recently she gave a superb turn as a dying woman in New Theatre's The Legacy.) Her rendition of "Holding to the Ground" captures Trina's puzzlement and resolute strength as the central female character.

As Marvin and Whizzer, Kelley and Tanner have a good connection on-stage. Yet at times in the second half, when Whizzer becomes chained to a hospital bed, the duets between Tanner and Kelley feel slightly stiff. Their interaction could use more affection and physical intimacy. As Jason, the bar mitzvah candidate, the 12-year-old McCoy is a standout. Besides being a cute kid, McCoy has a well-developed singing voice, and his range of emotion is quite developed. This is a challenging role for a young actor, and McCoy gives an excellent performance. (It isn't surprising that he was recently cast to do a national tour of Ragtime.)

Previously Stage Door's 26th Street Theatre was home to the Wilton Playhouse, a venue that produced sexy male-revue-style shows catering to Wilton Manors' large gay community. Broward Stage Door took over the space this year and spent approximately $150,000 renovating it. Falsettoland was the perfect play for Stage Door to try early in its tenure here -- somewhat risky material in a tried-and-true format. But this production will be the exception, not the rule. The 26th Street Theatre will continue to produce chiefly musical revues and Jewish comedies. Although this has been the formula for success to date, it will be interesting to see if this programming works as well in the new neighborhood as it does in Coral Springs.

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Mia Leonin

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