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theatre review

Falsettos at Daniels Spectrum in Toronto.Joanna Akyol

Long before TV's Modern Family and films like The Kids Are Alright, there was Falsettos. William Finn's quirky, tender 1990s musical both anticipated and celebrated the changing composition of western families. It's a story that opens with a song extolling a "tight-knit family" and culminates with a jubilantly unorthodox bar mitzvah that brings together a Jewish boy, his gay dad, his dad's lover, his mother and stepfather, and a lesbian couple as one big, happy clan.

When it made its Tony-winning debut in 1992, Falsettos came off like an eloquent rejoinder to conservative rhetoric about "family values." Frank Rich, then The New York Times's chief theatre critic and one of the biggest champions of Falsettos, memorably argued that it was the best show on Broadway to see with your kids. It's still a great family musical, in the fullest sense of that term, and it would be a shame if parents didn't take their older children and teenagers to see Acting Up's sparkling revival at the Daniels Spectrum.

It seems to me that young people will not only identify with Falsettos' prepubescent Jason (Michael Levinson), a kid trying to cope with the neurotic adults around him, they'll also appreciate Finn's glib, sarcastic tone. The American composer – perhaps better known now for The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee – writes about love and relationships without getting mushy. Even in the show's final scenes, when sentiment is unavoidable, he refers to it dismissively as "tears and schmaltz."

The tears and schmaltz come courtesy of AIDS, which makes a late entrance in the narrative. Falsettos is famously made up of two one-act plays, written a decade apart. The first is 1981's March of the Falsettos, set in 1979 during the dizzying days of the sexual revolution. The second, 1990's Falsettoland, picks up the story two years later and is coloured by the emerging health crisis amongst gay men. Finn and co-writer James Lapine later revised the two works when they were combined as a full-length musical. However, with Finn's blessing, Acting Up has gone back to the original one-acts for this production, emphasizing the contrasting tone of the two pieces.

I last saw Falsettos more than 10 years ago, so I can't speak to the changes specifically, but in this version you certainly feel the difference. Act 1, March of the Falsettos, is lighthearted and snappy. We meet Marvin (Stephen Patterson), a New York Jew who has left his wife Trina (Glynis Ranney) for the hunky young Whizzer (Eric Morin), but still wants to keep his family together. Fat chance. Trina instead ends up finding love and therapy with Marvin's psychiatrist, Mendel (Darrin Baker), while Jason, Marvin's perplexed son, sings My Father's a Homo. Although March ends on a note of discord – Whizzer leaving Marvin – you'd be forgiven for thinking of it as just a charming, clever trifle.

But in Act 2, Falsettoland, the narrative gets richer, more serious and yet, at the same time, funnier. It includes the show's most exhilarating ensemble number, Baseball Game, in which the adults gather to cheer on Little Leaguer Jason – a song with the priceless opening line, "We're watching Jewish boys/Who cannot play baseball/Play baseball." And it also contains soul-searching ballads by Trina, Whizzer and Marvin. A show that in its first act might be merely the blueprint for a sophisticated sitcom, a harbinger of Modern Family, becomes instead a gentle, moving meditation on love, family and mortality.

Acting Up, working in association with the Harold Green Jewish Theatre, has reassembled the creative team behind its award-winning 2012 production of Caroline, or Change. Director Robert McQueen, music director Reza Jacobs and choreographer Tim French once again do an impeccable job. French's playful choreography is a particular pleasure. Caroline's Levinson is also back and even more impressive this time as the moody, precocious Jason. He holds his own alongside his adult co-stars.

Patterson's Marvin grows perceptibly from a self-centred man who "wants it all," to a humble one grateful for the love he has known. Morin's pretty-boy Whizzer faces terminal illness with touching panache. Ranney is sympathetic as bewildered Trina and Baker is a delight as Mendel, especially when this balding, avuncular psychiatrist becomes giddy with love. Sara-Jeanne Hosie and Sarah Gibbons are welcome latecomers as Act 2's "lesbians next door," a dedicated medical intern (Hosie) and an insecure caterer (Gibbons) specializing in kosher nouvelle cuisine. In the musical's lovely egalitarian attitude, their relationship is given as much attention as those of the central characters.

It's hard to believe Falsettos hasn't had a professional production in Toronto in 18 years. Don't miss this chance to see it. And bring the family.

Falsettos runs to May 12.

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