"Homosexuals, women with children, short insomniacs, and a teeny, tiny band": All of the essential elements for a trip to Falsettoland are in place at the Dimson Theatre -- as are a couple of twists on the final chapter in William Finn's trilogy of Marvin musicals. The first bit of news -- and raison d'être for this production -- is the unconventional casting of Asian-American actors in all roles. Yet a less-heralded feature of this uneven mounting nevertheless makes it almost required viewing: The National Asian American Theatre Festival provides an opportunity to hear a modern masterpiece of musical theatre sung without amplification.
Falsettoland -- usually paired with March of the Falsettos since their combined 1992 Broadway production as Falsettos -- finds the 30-something Marvin (Jason Ma) out of the closet and finally approaching emotional adulthood just as his son, Jason (Ben Wu), approaches numerical adulthood (according to Jewish tradition). With much of Falsettoland centered on a bar mitzvah, it's not surprising that the score includes "The Miracle of Judaism" and more than a few snippets of Hebrew. Yet the large disconnect here between most of the cast and what they sing occurs not because they aren't credible as Jews -- but rather because they aren't credible as William Finn characters. Finn's neurotic New Yorkers are more Seinfeld than Everybody Loves Raymond. They are sentimental, even capable of kindness, sure. But Marvin speaks for them all when he sings (in March of the Falsettos), "We are manipulating people, and we need to know our worst sides aren't ignored."
Under Alan Muraoka's direction, though, Falsettoland is populated by a cuddly bunch of lighthearted whiners. This miscalibration -- most obvious in Ma's meek, apologetic Marvin -- robs Finn's work in ways large and small. With Marvin's growth stunted, the overall arc of the piece is flattened, its center shifted from Marvin to his lover, Whizzer (Manu Narayan). Too, Finn's lyrics -- astonishing in their layers of bittersweetness -- are often pitched only at surface level.
Yet even in a lackluster presentation, Falsettoland remains a gem. Sweeping wide enough to depict the AIDS crisis, it also focuses specifically enough on familial idiosyncrasies to make the most aloof theatregoer nod, chuckle, and mist up. Working with collaborator James Lapine, Finn wrote a score by turns ironic and understanding, ravishing and devastating, that captures (to paraphrase Tony Kushner) a moment where history was about to crack wide open. And to hear that score sung clearly, lovingly, and unamplified (with the excellent accompaniment of musical director-pianist W. Brent Sawyer) is a rare pleasure. When a performer sings softly, you don't lean back and wait to be overwhelmed by a near whisper; you lean forward, struck by the immediacy of Finn's expression and the timelessness of perfect musical theatre writing.
Presented by National Asian American Theatre Company as part of the National Asian American Theatre Festival
at the Dimson Theatre, 108 E. 15th St., NYC.
June 17-July 1. Tue.-Fri., 7 p.m.; Sat. and Sun., 3 and 7 p.m.
(212) 279-4200 or www.ticketcentral.com.