Relationships and marriages have evolved significantly in modern theater. As in society itself, LGBT needs and concerns are gaining a much more substantive and full hearing in both musicals and plays. This hearing is particularly evident in a trio of current efforts- two musical and one dramatic.
Hovey Players are reviving out Natick Tony Award –winning composer William Finn’s masterful 1992 musical “Falsettos, ” while New Repertory Theatre is presenting the first gender-blind production of “Marry Me a Little,” a revue created from “trunk songs” (songs cut from musicals) by composer Stephen Sondheim. Merrimack Rep is premiering “Shakespeare’s Will,” a one-woman show that speculates about an open marriage between the Bard and wife Anne Hathaway. All three are well-staged options.
The most resonant is “Falsettos,” which Hovey Players are giving an exuberant and often very moving production in their intimate Waltham theater. Soon to be bar mitzvah Jason is growing up, and so are his New York Jewish family- from the tensions of the breakup of his parents Marvin and Trina in the 1979 first act to the solidarity of family and friends with Marvin’s AIDS-stricken lover Whizzer in the 1981 second act. The Finn score and James Lapine book presciently see the American family changing, and director Liz Fenstermaker sharply articulates the change while capturing the show’s deep emotional caring for its diverse couples- Marvin and Whizzer, Trina and psychiatrist Mendel and lesbian partners internist Dr. Charlotte and kosher caterer Cordelia. Part of the strength of “Falsettos” is its convincingly balanced look at relationships and friendships- with Whizzer an unusual but pivotal influence on Jason in terms of his bar mitzvah.
Fenstermaker ensures that balance with a sterling cast. Nicholas Howe captures Marvin’s conflicted feeling for Trina-a mixture of love and rage- as well as his pride in Jason. Kevin Hanley finds Whizzer’s vulnerability and sometime frustration with Marvin and does well developing his mentoring friendship with Jason. Howe and Hanley sing their lovers’ duet robustly. The lovers’ intimacy is intense in Doug Cooper’s effective scenic design-with a bedroom area alternately curtained off and opened as the show requires. Katie Pickett catches Trina’s weariness in preparing for the bar mitzvah and finding new love with Mendel, played with rich spirit by Steven Kosakow. Grace Summer has the right concern for Whizzer as patient and friend, and Julia Atwood is persuasive as her empathetic caterer lover.
“Falsettos” champions love-gay and straight- in the face of AIDS and mortality. Hovey Players’ heartfelt revival more than proves the show’s enduring worth.
If “Falsettos” focuses on indomitable New Yorkers, “Marry Me a Little” speculates about highly lonely and vulnerable ones. Conceived and developed by Craig Lucas and Norman Rene, this witty and alternately humorous and edgy 1980 revue (Off-Broadway,1981) features a repertoire of songs that Stephen Sondheim did not include in such musicals as his landmark efforts “Follies” and “A Little Night Music.” Director-choreographer Ilyse Robbins and New Repertory Theatre obtained the right from Sondheim to offer the first fully staged gender blind production of the originally two-person (one male, one female) show- spreading songs among four actors- two male and two female- “to explore love, loss, fantasy and desire between man and woman, woman and woman, man and man.”
With sharp blocking, smart detail and alternately amusing and dreamy choreography and movement, Robbins has given edge and emotional richness to the four relationship-seeking tenants of designer Erik Diaz’s vivid apartment building set. Each ensemble member sings resonantly- in solo and with fellow performers. Aimee Doherty, as Woman 2, displays the kind of big musical talent her acting prowess and range have been promising. Her belt on “There Won’t Be Trumpets” (cut from “Anyone Can Whistle”) evokes the song’s title instrument. She also shares a dream dance- radiant in a turquoise Rafael Jaen dress- with Man 2, played with dash by Brad Daniel Peloquin. Peloquin shares a Noel Coward-like duo on “Pour Le Sport” (cut from unproduced “The Last Resorts”) with big-voiced Phil Tayler, whose hunky Man 1 sometimes catches Man 2’s eye and attention. Tayler, who possesses a very sweet higher register, also makes the most of an amusing exercise workout with a skateboard. Rounding out the foursome is multi-talented Erica Spyres, whose violin skill as Woman 1 is a big added plus. Other highlights include a snappy, stylish “Can That Boy Foxtrot!” (cut from “Follies”) and a devilishly wise “Happily Ever After “ (cut from “Company”).
“Marry Me a Little” may depict frustrated and often disappointed singles, but Robbins and the sharp New Rep quartet prove a dreamy combination. Now imagine what they could do with Sondheim’s best repertoire.
A different kind of imagining about relationships marks ‘’Shakespeare’s Will” at Merrimack Repertory Theatre. Playwright Vern Thiessen speculates in this brief one-woman work- about 80 minutes with no intermission- that Shakespeare and wife Anne Hathaway shared a very early open marriage. Looking at the arrangement from Hathaway’s point of view, “Shakespeare’s Will finds Anne speaking of her husband as a largely absentee father bonding with unidentified men in London and spending much time with an equally unidentified longtime companion. For her part, Hathaway is both a devoted mother to their three children and an emotionally adventurous woman with a number of lovers.
Seana McKenna, lead actress of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, gives a fiery and richly passionate performance as Hathaway- vividly voicing the objections of Anne’s father to Shakespeare as her husband and expressively identifying her supposed lovers. Thiessen’s sometimes poetic play could do with corresponding specifics about Shakespeare’s men. Still, McKenna dazzles in a solo tour de force as a wife as mysterious in her own way as Shakespeare himself. “Shakespeare’s Will” is likely to bring more attention to the mysteries of both husband and wife. Merrimack Rep is doing yeoman service showcasing McKenna’s brilliance and the play’s interesting reflections.
Falsettos: Hovey Players, Waltham, through January 27. 781-893-9171 or hoveyplayers.com
Marry Me A Little: New Repertory Theatre, Arsenal Center for the Arts, Watertown, through January 27. 617-923-8487 or newrep.org.
Shakespeare’s Will: Merrimack Repertory Theatre, Lowell, through February 3. 978-654-4678 or mrt.org.