If songs in musicals occur because spoken words prove insufficient to carry cresting emotions, then the falsetto cracks through regular singing to take us to another level entirely.
That's how it seems in a few light instances in Meredith McDonough's breathless production of "Falsettos," which opened over the weekend, for Theater Latté Da.
Both Jason (promising teen Sam Mandell), a kid caught up in a confusing whirlwind after his father divorced his mother for the man he loves, and lusty psychiatrist Mendel (Eric Morris), use their elevated registers to express infatuation in the sung-through William Finn-James Lapine musical.
For Jason, chess is the thing that sends his thoughts and notes into the ether. For Mendel, it's his inappropriate attraction to Trina (Serena Brook), Jason's mother, in this multidimensional love story that centers, as Mendel sings, "homosexuals / women with children / short insomniacs / and a teeny, tiny band."
McDonough's staging amplifies the show's wit even as it establishes the show's cultural grounding in a Jewish family in the first act. The production's second act is more moving than the competent Lapine-directed Broadway tour that landed at the Ordway Center a few years ago. That's clearly because of the director's bifurcated vision, which opens up the audience with humor before grabbing our hearts in Minneapolis' intimate Ritz Theater.
The casting, also, is pinpoint. Sasha Andreev plays the father, Marvin, and Max Wojtanowicz is his young lover Whizzer in this two-act set respectively in 1979 and '81 when the AIDS epidemic was a nameless scourge. The two performers capture, in their gorgeous, uncompromising singing, the shades of love from attraction and anger to fear and, ultimately, grief. That their voices blend so well and their chemistry is strong contrasts with their odd couple look owing to pronounced height differences.
McDonough has strong support for her directorial vision from choreographer Emily Michaels King, who moves the characters through simple furniture as their lives also turn like, well, set pieces. Music director Jason Hansen's energetic backing paces the actors and gives them a relentless vehicle on which to hang on for dear life.
The "Falsettos" score is as demanding as it is unforgiving, with complex chord changes, dense lyrics and inspired rhymes. "Lovers come and lovers go/Lovers fight and sing fortissimo." And the ensemble proves that it is up to the task.
Morris is charismatic and entertaining, using vocal, tonal and facial gestures to relay the welter of conflicted, risky emotions that Mendel experiences when he uses his position as Marvin's therapist to solicit information on his wife.
The real breakout performance is by Brook, who shows that she has the craft, stamina and Mona Lisa-esque personality to draw us into Trina's world. It's a notable turn for this actor who has hopped around the Twin Cities and the nation.
Mina Kinukawa's abstract set is a wall of primary colors — red, blue and yellow — which, lit by Grant Merges, reflect the characters' changing moods, including anger and passion. The three hues, of course, can also be combined to create the whole rainbow, an apt metaphor for a show that draws everyone into the historic pain that resonates in the COVID era.
This "Falsettos" hits some new, heartbreaking notes.
Who: Music and lyrics by William Finn. Book by Finn and James Lapine. Directed by Meredith McDonough with choreography by Emily Michaels King.
Where: Theater Latte Da at the Ritz, 345 13th Av. NE., Mpls.
When: 7:30 p.m. Wed. & Fri., 2 & 7:30 p.m. Thu. & Sat., 2 p.m. Sun. Ends Nov. 5.
Tickets: $45-$75. 612-339-3003 or latteda.org.
Protocol: Masks required for Sunday matinees.