"Falsettos" by William Finn and James Lapine at Actor's Express, March 20, 2019 - April 28, 2019
Since the site is not allowing the posting of reviews in its normal place, the backlog of my reviews will be going to the forum
Title: Min Headroom
James V. Ogden’s set design for Actor’s Express’s "Falsettos" uses a corner stage configuration with two tiers, a staircase stage left leading up to the second level. Ceiling heights are low, especially in the openings on both levels at stage right, with actors stooping to appear on the balcony level on stage right. With the fabric panels of the walls lit by Joseph P. Monaghan III’s lighting design in a variety of colors, it’s clear that the visual elements of the unpopulated stage have taken precedence over human usability.
Costume designer Alan Yeong also seems to buy into visual design overload, with extraneous "fun" costumes used in the opening number and far more costume changes than the script suggests. Christopher Dills’ props, mostly of obviously untouched food, seem to have been supplied in a blasé "you wanted it; here it is" fashion. Even Sarah Turner Sechelski’s dance choreography and David Sterritt’s fight choreography seem to exist in worlds of their own. It’s as if director Freddie Ashley has let his designers run free, to the detriment of the production.
This lax directorial oversight extends to the performances of the highly talented cast. Jessica De Maria is magnificent in her moments of interplay with other characters, but seems lost in her solos. Kylie Brown wears an ever-present smile, as if her native charm can take the place of a fully-formed character. Kandice Arrington has as little chemistry with Ms. Brown as Ms. De Maria has with boyish Ben Thorpe as therapist Mendel. Jordan Dell Harris brings little but good looks to the role of Whizzer, and Craig Waldrip comes across as intensely unlikeable except in a couple of affecting act two ballads. The child role of Jason, played by Vinny Montague in the performance I attended, is the only role that shows true signs of directorial oversight. Everyone else seems to have been let loose to invest what they can naturally supply to their roles.
This is a good-sounding musical, with strong voices across the board and good musical direction by Alli Lingenfelter. The range of Trina doesn’t seem to suit Ms. De Maria’s voice particularly well, but she is as professional in her vocal performance as everyone else. There’s a lot of power in the voices, particularly Mr. Waldrip’s. Since "Falsettos" is far more of a song cycle than a plotted musical, this musical power is immensely important to the success of the production.
"Falsettos" is chock-full of tuneful melodies and complex vocal lines, requiring a gifted set of musicians to put across, but the show requires more than just vocal dexterity. There needs to be heart in the relationships portrayed onstage, and the Actor’s Express production is sorely lacking in heart. Ms. De Maria does her best to create palpable relationships in ensemble moments, but her efforts fail to come to fruition in the production as a whole. Perhaps the show will continue to jell as its run continues.