FUSE Theatre’s "Falsettos" Hits All The Right Notes At Bregamos

Lucy Gellman | May 29th, 2023

FUSE Theatre’s

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Daniel Sbriglio as Whizzer and Andy Friedland as Marvin in FUSE Theatre's production of Falsettos. Lucy Gellman Photos.

The chess set still between Marvin and Whizzer sat at a standstill, pawns frozen in their brown squares. Marvin’s eyes sparkled; a smile played at the edges of his mouth. “Play the game,” he half-sang, half-commanded, swishing the whiskey in his glass. The room was warm. Whizzer paused before he picked up a pawn. He hesitated. “Shit, I blew it!” he sang. “I fear I’ve lost my head—”

“That’s because he’s so sexy!” Lara Morton interjected from the director’s table, and a chorus of giggles erupted from the stage. At the center of it all, Marvin and Whizzer pressed on, undeterred. The spell hadn’t been broken, just recast. 

Marvin (Andy Friedland) and Whizzer (Daniel Sbriglio) are characters in Falsettos, William Finn and James Lapine’s 1992 musical about neurotic Jews, coming of age rituals, biological and chosen family, and the AIDS crisis in early 1980s New York. Thirty-one years after the show first ran on Broadway and four decades after its first installment graced the stage, FUSE Theatre has brought it to New Haven just in time for Pride Month.

The show runs at Bregamos Community Theatre, 491 Blatchley Ave., on June 3 at 7:30 p.m., June 4 at 3 p.m., June 9 at 7:30 p.m. and June 10 and 11 at 3 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Tickets and more information are available here. At a moment when both anti-LGBTQ+ legislation and Anti Semitism are precipitously on the rise, the work is refreshing, funny, surprising, gutting, deeply heartfelt, and soaked in a history that does not feel so distant at all.  

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Lara Morton: “The musicals that we fall in love with when we’re young, they grow to form and shape us." Lucy Gellman Photos.

“The musicals that we fall in love with when we’re young, they grow to form and shape us,” said director Lara Morton, who co-founded FUSE with Susan Larkin in 2019. “To experience it here is to feel it. We’re presenting it in a very intimate and personal way.”

For her, it’s also a longtime dramatic dream brought to fruition. When Morton arrived at SUNY Oneonta in the early 1990s, the school had just done March of the Falsettos, and Morton and several of her peers fell in love with the soundtrack (Falsettos began as a trilogy; it was later adapted into a single, full-length musical). The following year, the school put on Falsettoland, and Morton watched as a number of her friends, inspired by the work, came out of the closet for the first time.

It was a very specific moment in LGBTQ+ history and American history, Morton remembered. AIDS had appeared just a decade before (although it took two full years for it to make it to the front page of the New York Times, four for President Ronald Reagan to publicly acknowledge it, and six until the AIDS Quilt appeared on the National Mall and he declared it a national emergency). In Oneonta just as elsewhere, Morton could feel the thick, palpable weight of that stigma every time LGBTQ+ rights came up. 

That was decades ago. Morton graduated from college, and went on with her life as an actor, coach, and teaching artist. Then three years ago, the Covid-19 pandemic brought FUSE’s first musical screeching to a halt just a week before it was set to open. As she braved the online pivot, Morton found herself returning to Falsettos over and over again. The show, which had a celebrated 2016 revival on Broadway that was filmed for PBS, suddenly seemed so relevant. 

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Swing Elvin Melendez as Mendel, Johanna Milani (in orange) as Trina, Kate Stango as Charlotte, Graeme Kennedy as Jason, Andy Friedland as Marvin and Ronnie McLaren as Cordelia. Lucy Gellman Photos.

“I started thinking about how it was the second time that a global health crisis had stopped people in their tracks,” she said. For the second time in three decades, she heard stories of people who couldn’t visit their loved ones in the hospital as they grew weak and died. She felt the fear around those who had been infected; she witnessed a virus become a political issue. 

She also saw how quickly, how articulately, how responsively the public health community responded to Covid-19. And then, she saw how the world moved forward. 

If the goal was to have Falsettos bring those moments together, both Morton and an extremely able cast and crew have succeeded. After moving into Bregamos Community Theater earlier this month, crew members built out a 24-foot raised runway, so that the show is presented in the round rather than only on Bregamos’ stage. Despite the panache of Broadway—which Falsettos very much has—it means that the company is able to tell this story in a candid, immediate way.

The intimacy is very much what Morton was going for: Falsettos is a story about faith, about coming of age, about falling in and out of love and the family that fills the gap when systems fail. It’s also a reminder of what hasn’t changed—of whose lives are deemed more worthy when a public health crisis turns the world on its head. While AIDS is now manageable, there is still no vaccine for HIV. A month's supply of Truvada or Descovy can cost up to $2,000 for someone without health insurance.

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Johanna Milani as Trina during a recent rehearsal. Cast members performed at Fairfield Pride last weekend. Lucy Gellman Photos.

When the work opens in Bregamos’ small, low-lit space, it is 1979, and Marvin (Friedland) has separated from his wife Trina (Johanna Milani) to be with his lover Whizzer (Sbriglio). It has strained his relationship with his young son Jason (Preston Ottaviano, Graeme McCabe Kennedy and Luke Cashman rotate in the role) and complicated it with his therapist Mendel (Noah Golden), who has the hots for Trina. 

Even on its own, it has the makings of a musical about dysfunctional family dynamics. But all of it comes to a head when Marvin and Trina must plan Jason’s Bar Mitzvah, the Jewish rite of passage in which this boy becomes a man. By now, it is 1981, and cases of AIDS—then reported as a rare cancer seen among gay men—have started appearing in New York City. In the audience, we know it’s only a matter of time. On stage, maybe the actors do too. 

And then it happens. One of the friendly lesbians next door (Jonna Capone and Kate Stango as Charlotte) rings the alarm; she’s seen cases of AIDS in her work as an internist, even though there's no name for it. And the question is born: how will you build and rebuild your family when the going gets unimaginably tough? A nod to Ronnie McLaren as her non-Jewish partner Cordelia, whose own culinary adventures into Ashkenazi Jewish cuisine add a much-needed punch line. 

The result is a work of art that is sweet but never saccharine, with a deep, sometimes irreverent cultural specificity that the cast has worked to master (during a rehearsal break last week, Kennedy and Ottaviano pored over a copy of the Gates of Repentance, the prayer book for the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur). While parts of the script have not aged particularly well (“My Father's a Homo” may feel a little indelicate), it's also a time capsule, with a propulsive, bright kind of tempo that it’s hard not to get swept up in. 

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Elvin Melendez  and Noah Golden compare notes on Mendel. Lucy Gellman Photos.

Characters might deliver their lines in near-perfect harmony, but they’re also relatable: the unmoored ex-wife who finds a rebound in her husband’s confidant, the anxious and at times misanthropic dad, the not-particularly-likable therapist, the doctor who knows that something is happening but can’t name exactly what. We, members of the audience, know these people; perhaps we are these people.  

As the cast arrived at rehearsal last Wednesday, all of that was on full display. Beyond a counter stacked with black and white cookies, jammy rugelach, a container of hummus and a partly eaten noodle kugel, a handful of cast members gathered around musical director Aron J. Smith, running through a 20-minute segment for Fairfield Pride. The festival, held last weekend, is one of multiple statewide Pride events at which actors are performing as part of the show. 

"We’re watching Jew-ish boys who cannot play baseball play baseball!" they exclaimed in perfect harmony, the notes fast and clipped as they came one after the other. Somewhere near home plate, Jason swung and missed. And again, in one breathless thought: "We’re watching Jew-ish boys! Who cannot play baseball! Play baseball!"     

At the center, Milani lifted her face to the low-hanging ceiling, shape-shifted into Trina and began to belt her way through the game. Sbriglio-as-Whizzer entered the fray, and the ground beneath her shifted. As she bemoaned his presence, her voice filled the whole theater, pressing up against the walls and winding around a makeshift bodega and bright portrait of Ramos’ late son Satchel. As rain clouds gathered outside the theater, it felt like a sun-soaked outfield, the air thick with a family just trying to figure it all out. 

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Ronnie McLaren and Kate Stango. “It’s so important to have stories of queer people that feel real and celebrate the things that make queer people queer people," McLaren said. Lucy Gellman Photos.

As actors ran through Act I minutes later, Stango and McLaren stepped out into a light drizzle, looking over the sprawl of asphalt that surrounds Bregamos. When each heard about the musical individually, “we were probably the most excited of all the cast members,” Stango said. 

While the two did not know each other until this performance—McLaren is finishing work for a doctorate in clinical psychology and Stango works at UConn—both have long loved Falsettos, and are excited to be telling a story that is both very Jewish and very queer. For McLaren, who is both queer and Jewish, it’s the complexity of the show that pulls them back every time.  

“Everyone is always like, hashtag love is love,” but Falsettos moves so far beyond that, they said. For instance, not every character is likable; some act downright cringe-worthy. “It’s so important to have stories of queer people that feel real and celebrate the things that make queer people queer people. We’re not trying to make this palatable for everyone.”

“I just love it so much,” said Stango, who watched the 2016 revival in Fairfield when it screened at regional movie theaters, and came in knowing the entire book by heart. “I’ve been hearing the soundtrack in my brain for six years and now to see it come to life is incredible.” 

As a “swing”—an actor who can play multiple roles if someone else gets sick or can’t go on—she said she feels lucky to know the show inside and out.  

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Choreographer Paul Aguirre, who Morton praised as indispensable to the show. Lucy Gellman Photos.

Back inside, Friedland and Sbriglio had settled halfway down the raised platform, a chess set between them. As they sang, dodging each other’s glances, a listener could feel the tension rising through the space. Stango brought them two empty glasses, and they swirled imaginary scotch as they played. 

Friedland rotated his wrist just so, and one could almost see the caramel-colored scotch swishing up against the sides of the glass. He stood, each footstep deliberate as he and Sbriglio switched places. Sbriglio reached for a coffee-colored wooden pawn, and his whole body appeared to vibrate just a tiny bit. His eyes widened in time with the music.  

As a teacher and the former assistant director of the Connecticut chapter of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), Friedland later said that the work feels personal to him—so much so that he commutes from Hartford for rehearsals multiple times a week. When he saw the call for auditions, “I was like, I can’t not do this,” he remembered.  

After growing up in a reform household in Fairfield, the grandson of a Hungarian Jew who fled violence, it almost felt like an obligation. From early in rehearsals, “I was like, I know these people,” he said. As opening night draws closer, he has worked with non-Jewish members on everything from how to recite Hebrew prayers to how to wear a tallis, or prayer shawl, for a Bar Mitzvah. 

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Graeme Kennedy and Preston Ottaviano, who rotate in the role of Jason with Luke Cashman. Golden joked that the three, who Morton met through a production of Willy Wonka, are often the most mature in the room. Lucy Gellman Photos.

Golden, who plays Mendel and is also a producer on the show with Elizabeth Santaus, added that Falsettos “just felt right.” As he watched Morton lift and carry a giant, quilted yarmulke across a corner of the theater, he remembered growing up in a reform, “very culturally Jewish” household in Guilford, attending Congregation Mishkan Israel faithfully until his Bar Mitzvah. Then he didn't go back until December of last year, for a klezmer concert on Christmas Day. 

Maybe that’s why the show always felt so familiar, he said. Like Morton, he said, he felt a particular affinity for the script after Covid-19, which sent FUSE online in its infancy. 

When Covid first arrived in New Haven three years ago, “We didn’t know why [it was happening]. We didn’t know what to do,” he continued. In the play as in real life, “people are complaining and kvetching and then someone gets sick and none of it matters anymore.”  

Back onstage, the cast was running through “The Year of the Child” for the second time that evening, the words Bar Miiiiiiii-tz-vah stretching out until the long “i” felt like the center of the universe. Actors formed a line and danced down the center of the runway, raising their arms as they sang.

At one end, Friedland joined hands with McLaren, and went into a tango. At the other, Milani spun to the end of the runway, and spread her arms to their full wingspan. Then she danced her way back to the stage, where Kennedy grimaced in character and brought a copy of  the Gates of Repentance to his chest. Everyone was doing jazz hands by now. 

“There's music in his heart!” they sang, suddenly a rotating circle around Kennedy. “His life's about to start! His body's going wild! My chiiiiiiilllllld!”

The applause mingled with laughter loud enough to hear all the way to the parking lot. 

FUSE Theatre's production of Falsettos runs at Bregamos Community Theatre, 491 Blatchley Ave., on June 3 at 7:30 p.m., June 4 at 3 p.m., June 9 at 7:30 p.m. and June 10 and 11 at 3 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Tickets and more information are available here.