Tag Archives: Audrey Cardwell

Bringing Back the Bedside Bar Mitzvah

Review: Falsettos

By Perry Tannenbaum

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Amazing how edgy and new an old-hat musical can seem these days. At intermission during opening night of William Finn and James Lapine’s Falsettos, I ran into a collegial culture vulture in the Knight Theater lobby who asked, “Do you think Charlotte is ready for this?” Not very different from the local director who said, “Charlotte is a hard market for this kind of thing, you know?”

Except that director was Steve Umberger, talking about Falsettos a few weeks before Charlotte Rep first presented it at Booth Playhouse in the autumn of 1993 – a year after Finn and Lapine won Tony Awards for their work. An alternative newsweekly named Creative Loafing sponsored that production, I recall, and Queen City Theatre Company revived the musical briefly in a concert edition at Duke Energy Theater in 2012.

So not withstanding some grumbling inside Knight Theater and a few walkouts, Charlotte has been ready for Falsettos for over 25 years.

Upscaled from the Duke and the Booth, the current touring version directed by Lapine is glitzier and brasher than previous productions staged here, overmiked and maybe a little overacted. What started out as “Four Jews in a Room Bitching” repeatedly became one Broadway diva on a stage belting.

While Finn and Lapine never envisioned the new frontiers beyond the boundaries of the binary sexual template, they tilted toward an inclusiveness that was fresh and daring. When we reach the bedside bar mitzvah scene, a climax that brought me to tears even though I knew it was coming, the six adults celebrating Jason’s Jewish coming of age are neatly divided into homosexual, heterosexual, and lesbian couples.

Back at Booth Playhouse in 1993, this stage tableau was Charlotte’s foretaste of what was heading our way with Tony Kushner’s Millennium Approaches, still in its first run on Broadway and already taking us to a new chapter in America’s ongoing culture wars – a first step toward the diversity we now take for granted on TV sitcoms a quarter of a century later.

Of course, a certain amount of crafty contrivance helps in forging the neat division of sexual orientations in Falsettos. Even before the four Jews dance in from the wings, taking their place in front of a Rubik’s cube-like construct that will become the set, Marvin has deconstructed his marriage – and come out of the closet – to move in with Whizzer, a debonair cruiser with a designer wardrobe. Trina, Jason’s mom, isn’t taking Marvin’s exit or his sexual realignment very well. Angry? Jealous? Overwhelmed? Yes.

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The family shrink, Mendel, is there to help Trina pick up the pieces – which jibes well with the psychiatrist’s own intentions of picking up Trina. So the remainder of the first act, originally presented separately Off-Broadway as The March of the Falsettos in 1979, is an orgy of jealousies, self-doubts, and couples conflicts. Marvin, not at all a model of maturity, is uncomfortable with Trina’s budding relationship with Mendel and beginning to wonder whether he truly loves Whizzer.

Meanwhile Mendel is weighing the freedom and loneliness of continued bachelorhood against the intimacy and responsibilities of matrimony and step-fatherhood. Whizzer? Doesn’t think he loves his man, although Marvin is an excellent provider, and isn’t at all sure about this monogamy deal. No, overmiking doesn’t help all this stressing, bickering, and childishness.

“Bitch, bitch, funny, funny,” the four Jews sing at the beginning, and Act I is every bit of that – but not especially Jewish after that opening song. Then comes Falsettoland, which is what the second act was called when it premiered separately Off-Broadway in 1990. In the 11-year interval between these two one-acts, Finn and Lapine advanced the action a mere two years, from 1979 to 1981, which you’ll see referenced in an effigy of Nancy Reagan if you haven’t scrutinized your playbill.

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Now it’s time for Jason to study for his bar mitzvah, for Marvin and Trina to bicker over whom to invite to the reception – and to decide the utmost practicality, the caterer! Just so happens that one of the two lesbians who have newly moved in next door, Cordelia, is a caterer. The other, Charlotte, is a doctor of internal medicine, which comes in very handy when there’s another new arrival in the neighborhood: AIDS.

Finn and Lapine vividly recapture the early days of the fearful epidemic when Dr. Charlotte leads a quartet in singing “Something Bad Is Happening” – before the disease even had a name. Before evangelicals had the audacity to declare AIDS a curse from God aimed at homosexuals. Compared to the Rep cast of ’93 who all lived through those days, the touring cast now at Knight Theater comes in with a disadvantage, compounded by the fact that so many in the audience weren’t even born during those turbulent times – and hadn’t had the luxury of studying up before Falsettos turned from “funny, funny” to deadly serious.

a - Marvin and Whizzer - 0457rAudio had been dialed down a little from the soundbooth when we crossed over to Falsettoland, so I felt more comfortable with the Knight Theater cast after intermission when the frenetic action calmed down and our adults became more adult and self-aware, with the sort of insight Sondheim brings to the post-fairytale of married life. Max Von Essen improved the most in the transition as Marvin. Yes, it’s true that Marvin is a self-centered jerk when he emerges from the closet, and we should, on balance, despise him. But a wisp of nebbishy Woody Allen bewilderment and insecurity would have brought so much to Marvin’s character and Finn’s lyrics. When Marvin begins to get a grip and reconciles with Whizzer, it was very gratifying to see Von Essen find him.

Maybe Nick Adams’ somewhat laid-back approach to Whizzer had Von Essen believing that he was the stud in this relationship. I never lost sight of Adams’ understated self-confidence and vanity, but Whizzer has the only Broadway-sized ego in this gallery. Adams seemed to be a comedy bombshell kept in check, and I found it disappointing that Lapine in his direction let someone else loose. Yet when his moment came to sing “You Gotta Die Sometime,” Adams rose to the drama.

On the other hand, Von Essen may have judged that the Woody Allen bewilderment domain had been sufficiently occupied by Nick Blaemire as Mendel, lovable no matter how agnostic and indecisive the psychiatrist may be. Eden Espinoza certainly makes Trina a formidable leap for Mendel from bachelorhood and therapeutic detachment. We can also admit that, in adding her showpiece, “I’m Breaking Down,” to the songs they had already written for March of the Falsettos and Falsettoland, Finn and Lapine had always intended to enhance the Broadway heft of their score.

Trouble is, Espinoza spreads its one Mama Rose dramatic moment over the whole song, which should play more like a frazzled Lucille Ball. As with Von Essen, I started liking Espinoza more after intermission as she relaxed a little watching Jason’s misadventures in baseball – and she hit stride in her big second act song, “Holding to the Ground,” which was more in her wheelhouse.

Although he splits the role with Thatcher Jacobs in alternating performances, it’s obvious that Jonah Mussolino as Jason has all the grit and talent necessary to hold up his end of the quartets that begin each act. Even if his bar mitzvah Hebrew was garbled and unrecognizable, it was gratifying to see Mussolino, so integral to this show, finally get his solo spots after intermission, especially in his climactic “Another Miracle in Judaism.”

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Bryonia Marie Parham and Audrey Cardwell balance each other nicely as the lesbians next door, Cardwell slightly ditzy and hugely self-doubting as the caterer and Parham dignified, unsettled, and empathetic as Dr. Charlotte amid a shifting medical landscape that shook people’s confidence everywhere. They really do become a part of Jason’s extended family, Doc Charlotte with her bedside manner, Cordelia with her gefilte fish.

David Rockwell’s set design becomes slicker and more metropolitan between acts, but I loved how Lapine had his company join in reassembling the original Rubik’s cube. Then with lighting designer Jeff Croiter artfully dimming the closing scene, a single piece was removed to become a touching marker. A little more of that artful simplicity – and a little less loudness and glitz – would bring this Falsettos closer to perfection. At its heart, it’s a show that hasn’t aged one day since 1993.

Long Sufferings Redeemed by Pure Longings – and Bluegrass Music – in Bright Star

Review:  Bright Star

By Perry Tannenbaum

There are plenty of things you can carry in a basket, a handbag, or a satchel, but one of the last you might consider is a baby. Apparently, some moms have gravitated toward the idea without dire consequences. Moses seemed to turn out okay, and the pseudo-title character in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest weathers the indignity on a slightly bumpy ride to comedy bliss.

In Bright Star, a rustic musical written by Steve Martin with Edie Brickell, Alice Murphy watches this inhumane transport just moments after she has given birth – despite her furious efforts against the more powerful men in the room. It’s the last time she sees the baby, and it becomes a moment that haunts and sours her life for a long, long time afterwards. As vivid as this image is by itself, Martin finds ways to make this satchel moment even more vivid afterwards.

Music and lyrics, mountain-and-bluegrass tinged, sustain this wide-arcing storyline, even if they don’t quite equal it. The way things work out for Alice resembles some of the less popular late Shakespeare plays – The Winter’s Tale, Cymbeline, and The Tempest – where there is too much suffering and regret spread over multiple decades for their happy endings to be giddy and gleeful.

We mostly see Alice during the two main crises of her story, both of them dramatic encounters with Jimmy Ray Dobbs. The first is when they meet in Zebulon, NC, in the early ‘20s, when he becomes her beau – until the spectacular baby-in-the-satchel catastrophe – and the second is after WW2, when they reconnect by fortuitous accident in Raleigh. Jimmy Ray is the mayor’s son, so we readily understand why Mayor Dobbs would object to Alice on greedy, plutocratic grounds. Daddy Murphy’s objections are harder to divine, but they seem virulent and religious. The cogs of Martin’s plot wouldn’t fall perfectly into place if Josiah Dobbs and Daddy Murphy weren’t briefly on the same page.

Daddy is a man of conscience. Mayor Dobbs is a rich politician. Huge difference ordinarily.

All the circles of misfortune begin veering back to bliss when Billy Cane, fresh home after serving in the war, shows up at Alice’s office, where she edits the prestigious Asheville Southern Journal. Even local icon Carl Sandburg finds it difficult to get published there, though Alice admits that Tennessee Williams shows some promise. If Billy can sufficiently polish up just one of the manuscripts he has brought with him, enough that it gets published in the Journal, it will validate him as possessing the gifts – and the individual voice – of a significant writer.

Bitterness has made Alice a stern judge. Yet because of her toughness she’s a valuable mentor if she believes in you. A weirdly powerful alchemy begins to brew as Alice offers Billy scraps of encouragement. It’s something to write home about, and Billy’s correspondent is Margo Crawford, the girl he left behind twice – to soldier in a war and to make his way in the literary world. Finding his voice will bring Billy back home. Improbably, Alice will follow, and she will find that this was the place she needed to be.

There’s plenty emotional territory for Audrey Cardwell to cover as Alice: genial hostess, tough-love mentor, and dad-crossed lover. Yet the only traces of charisma that I found was from the embittered, autumnal woman behind the editorial desk. Her other selves were relatively generic, never really vivacious, as if tragedy had tainted her slightly before it really struck. I liked Henry Gottfried more fully as the slightly naïve, slightly quixotic, slightly self-absorbed and oblivious Billy, an easier role to fill out.

In an old-timey, rusticated story the melodramatic dads played as well as the bluegrass music. John Leslie Wolfe as Daddy Murphy and Jeff Austin as Mayor Dobbs ably demonstrated that a wide spectrum of righteous, indignant, and utterly vile ranting can be plausible reactions to pure innocence. Against these intimidating infernos, the good folk were somewhat overshadowed, but you won’t find Patrick Cummings as Jimmy Ray, Liana Hunt as Margo, or David Atkinson as Daddy Cane hard to like at all.

Of these, I probably enjoyed Daddy Cane the most because he doesn’t take himself seriously up yonder in the backwoods. Allison Briner-Dardenne does well with Mama Murphy, the most conflicted person we see. Strewn through Martin’s story are several hard choices that folks get wrong, but while Martin is gracefully completing circles of love and birth that span decades, he also renders regret, forgiveness, reconciliation, and kindness in fine style.