“Falsettos” tells the story of a posse of dysfunctional adults who, as announced in the opening number “Four Jews in a Room Bitching,” are united in their shared background and struggle to piece together their own version of an ideal middle-class family. Set in the 1980s in the United States during the AIDS epidemic, we follow Marvin as he abandons patriarchal obligations once held as part of his decidedly “tight-knit family” to be with his gay lover, Whizzer.
As portrayed by two abstract chess pieces on the Playbill of Basement Arts’ “Falsettos,” moving game pieces to reach a satisfactory configuration is a recurring theme in the show. Similar to the Broadway version — in which the set consisted of large foam blocks that the actors shuffled around like game pieces — the “Falsettos” production team used small black cubes and even the standing piano as their set. The audience and actors were separated by a mere few pieces of tape; the actors did not have mics either, which lent to a truly intimate audience-performer experience.
The space was so intimate that there were no chairs left in the audience 10 minutes before the show was supposed to start. The theatre was completely filled by the performers’ family members. Chair-less attendees, who were mostly all students, were greeted by rows of silver-headed parents and fidgeting younger siblings looking on at the not-quite-punctual college crowd. We found ourselves playing our own board game as we shuffled chairs around, adding makeshift rows to the audience. The show’s two directors were frantically darting from one end of the studio to the other, adding chairs and shifting rows and making a rubix cube out of their audience. The chaos was unprofessional but endearing.
Once every audience member was seated or standing in some capacity, the show’s pit, consisting of SMTD sophomore Andrew Gerace on a standup piano, set off on the lively staccato accompaniment that opens the show. Trina, played by SMTD senior Lauren Kenner, enters holding a laundry basket and sporting a polka-dot flare dress. Her predictable costuming left more to be desired in terms of immersing us in the vibrant style of the ’80s — Trina is first presented to us looking like she just left the set of a 1940s sitcom. Nonetheless, the opening number was lively and animated as the show’s main characters jumped like pogo sticks from one end of the blackbox stage to the other, mists of their sweat and spit drifting over the audience members sat just a few inches away from them.
Marvin, played by SMTD freshman Erik Dagoberg, and his lover Whizzer, played by SMTD sophomore Mark Mitrano, were the sparks that feuled the rest of the show’s conflict and energy. Dagoberg delivered a consistently convincing performance as a level-headed, insecure Marvin that juxtaposed Mitrano’s confident tenor sound and flamboyant demeanor nicely.
While Broadway’s recent revival of “Falsettos” features a powerhouse Trina characterized by a shrill, manic vocal tone, Kenner’s vocal approach proved to be more dynamic. She incorporated a fluttering upper register with the character’s bold lower register score. While beautiful to listen to, Kenner’s pristine vibrato did not lend itself to fully portraying Trina’s manic mental state. This lack of manic energy was manifested during her song “I’m Breaking Down,” in which Trina is supposed to reach the apex of her mental breakdown. Kenner’s performance was sufficiently comical, but was ultimately underwhelming in terms of illustrating a woman unraveling with homemaker hysteria.
Basement Arts’ production of “Falsettos” catered to what many love about the Broadway musical: the wacky characters, the playful score, the spirited group numbers, the involved shuffling of set pieces like chess pieces on a chessboard. Though the inadequately-sized studio space made for a disorderly pre-show experience, one can’t help but appreciate the way we were encouraged to scrunch together like unhappy family members in a dysfunctional little home — just as the characters do in the show. “Falsettos” at Basement Arts was a disorganized but deeply enjoyable, purely human experience.