Eternity Playhouse, February 11

When was the last time you heard a musical performed unamplified? No, I can’t remember, either, the odd workshop apart. I doubt that any of the cast of Falsettos has done it before, and so the performers’ leap of faith and courage required to undertake this Darlinghurst Theatre Company production should be roundly applauded, as should be director Stephen Coyler, musical directors Nigel Ubrihien and Chris King and designer Gez Xavier Mansfield. The risk taken has paid off handsomely.

I mention Mansfield in this regard as his set had to function as a sound-board (as with opera) for this to work. This sound-oriented design was taken one step further, with Ubrihien’s unamplified grand piano living in a kind of window box that is set into the upstage wall, projecting the sound out into the 200-seat Eternity Playhouse in an idea blend with the voices.

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Katrina Retallick, Anthony Garcia, Tamlyn Henderson, Ben Hall and Stephen Anderson. Photo: Helen White.

The wonder of all this is the warmth and immediacy of the singing, with none of the harshness so common in amplified musicals. This plays a crucial role in helping make the characters more real, less remote and more likeable.

Winning the popularity stakes at a canter is 13-year-old Anthony Garcia as Jason, who inverts the old theatrical adage about children and animals by being the cast’s biggest asset with a bravura performance of memorable wit and charm. He has ample scope as we watch Jason wrestling with his father being gay, his father’s lover, his mother’s falling for her shrink, and the fact that he, Jason, must also consult with this shrink. Meanwhile he suffers the typical parental pressures to excel and the galloping onset of puberty.

Falsettos was originally two one-act musicals, March of the Falsettos and Falsettoland, penned a decade apart. They have been wedded into one show since 1992, but a crack between them remains visible. This has nothing to do with the time lapse of two years between the settings, or the addition of two new characters for the second half, but just sheer quality. Where March of the Falsettos romps along from the opening Four Jews in a Room Bitching, doing a splendid job of holding heterosexual and homosexual love up to the same scrutiny, reverence, affection and gentle mockery, Falsettoland mires itself in sentimentality. Surely a more potent depiction was possible as Whizzer (Ben Hall) dies of an insidious new disease that would become known as AIDS. Whizzer does, however, deliver the show’s best song in You Gotta Die Sometime.

Devised by William Finn and James Lapine, with Finn penning the music and lyrics, Falsettos has barely a line of spoken dialogue. The story dances along just on the lyrics, especially in the first half, while the music is more functional than notable.

Coyler has caught the edge of nervousness implicit in the humour of these neurotic Jewish characters, and amplified it with all sorts of fidgety stage business and rapid-fire choreography for the actors’ hands. This can wear a little, but it does maintain a certain energy – which the actors need as they continuously carry and reset the coffin-sized wooden boxes that cunningly comprise the set.

The cast of Tamlyn Henderson (Marvin), Katrina Retallick (Trina), Stephen Anderson (Mendel), Margi de Ferranti (Dr Charlotte), Elise McCann (Cordelia) and the aforementioned Hall contains no weak links. Anderson’s zany Mendel is a particular joy, especially in his scenes with Garcia.

Until March 16.