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Gallery Players’ 70th Season Kicks Off With Luminous “Falsettos”

Richard Sanford Richard Sanford Gallery Players’ 70th Season Kicks Off With Luminous “Falsettos”
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Gallery Players kicks off its landmark 70th season with a spare, beautiful production of Falsettos, music and lyrics by William Finn and book by James Lapine and William Finn, directed by Ross Shirley.

We meet the “hero” of Falsettos, Marvin (Will Macke), in 1979, right after he’s left his wife Trina (Rachel Hertenstein) and son Jason (Elliott Hattemer) for playboy Whizzer (Jay Rittberger). Marvin loses his psychiatrist Mendel (Nick Van Atta) as Mendel counsels and then seduces Trina. The second act moves into the 80s as it confronts the specter of AIDS and introduces the couple down the hall from Marvin, Charlotte (Heather Carvel) and Cordelia (Jordan Shafer).

Charlotte (Jordan Shafer) and Cordelia (Heather Carvel).

It’s no easy task to keep an audience interested in as morally ambiguous a character as Marvin, wracked with unrepentant greed and maybe-more-repentant selfishness, who hits his wife and gives her multiple sexually transmitted diseases. Will Macke is more than up to the challenge in a jaw-dropping, physical performance that never seeks an easy out or leans on tired tropes. He finds the turmoil in the character without letting him off the hook. It’s an unflinching and unforgettable performance. The burnished tones he brings to ballads like “What More Can I Say?” and his heartbreaking duet with Hattemer, “Father to Son,” sparkle, and his light center of gravity in the ensemble numbers dazzles.

Jay Rittberger’s Whizzer is no less astonishing. He brings rich nuance to a character who could be a leisure-suited cliché. He conjures intense chemistry with Macke on rambunctious duets like “The Thrill of First Love” and breaks any heart within his blast radius on the tricky rhythms and wry, insidious melody of second-act showcase “You Gotta Die Sometime.”

Falsettos has one of the most beautiful scores of the last 30 years, and Shirley’s direction, Allen Finkelstein’s musical direction, and this cast make the most of it. Rachel Hertenstein’s Trina and Elliot Hattemer’s Jason take their features, “I’m Breaking Down” for her and “Another Miracle of Judaism” for him and hit those tricky fastballs clean out of the park. The cast feels like they were born for Finn’s rich, lustrous harmonies; fireworks erupt any time three or more of this cast sing at, around, and with one another.

Trina (Rachel Hertenstein), Jason (Elliot Hattemer), and Marvin (Will Macke).

Carvel and Shafer add surprising, delightful color. The one off-putting character interpretation is Nick Van Atta’s Mendel. The psychiatrist has always been the character who verges closest to parody. Van Atta can’t seem to find solid ground so he falls back on broad comedy that feels as though it stepped out of a different play. However, Van Atta sings beautifully and provides an exciting undercurrent with his backgrounds.

Allan Finkelstein’s musical direction brings out the accessible beauty in this score while sacrificing none of its wit or depth. Mendell Hibbard’s percussion leads the four-piece chamber orchestra through twisting rhythms. Jeff Hamm’s keyboards provide buoyancy and thickness. Joy Norris’ reeds, especially her clarinet work, streak through the music with perfect brush-strokes, as Eric Neuenschwander’s synths paint rippling textures on an expansive canvas.

Ross Shirley’s direction keeps the play focused on the strong interactions between these troubled people. He stresses the humor, so the play doesn’t descend into a pit of darkness, without letting it turn into a sitcom. Actors’ Theater of Columbus provide a minimal set which highlights Keith Haring‘s art, including the original logo (the Haring Foundation is thanked in the program), that sets it in place without going overboard.

Gallery Players’ Falsettos is the most beautiful music on a Columbus stage right now executed at its highest level. If you’ve never heard William Finn’s music, you can’t ask for a better gateway drug. If you’re already a fan, this production affirms why. It’s the blend of splashy and human work Gallery Players does better than anyone else when they’re on; still taking chances 70 years on.

Falsettos runs through Oct. 28 with performances at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Saturdays, and 2:30 p.m. Sundays. For tickets and more info, visit columbusjcc.org.

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