Acting Up Stage Company has, over the last few years, become one of the most powerful players in the Toronto musical theatre scene, despite only producing a handful of pieces a year. Their spring mainstage is a Dora magnet and this year’s opening brought an impressive crowd of movers and shakers to the great but perennially under-attended Daniels Spectrum theatre space. I’ve never seen that many people of any kind in that east-end lobby, let along people of the moving and shaking variety. But while I wasn’t impressed with last year’s highly lauded offering, this year Acting Up Stage more than lives up to its ever-growing reputation.
With legendary composer William Finn in the audience to give the production his blessing and his stamp of approval as “not terrible”, Acting Up Stage presented a stirring rendition of the two separate one-acts that make up Falsettos. The first, March of the Falsettos, is the less successful of the two. Finn’s writing style evolved beautifully in the ten years between writing this act and its sequel so I found myself wanting more from the tense action and overly neurotic characters. But the production picks up unstoppable momentum near the end of March with Marvin’s stirring song to his son Jason (the wonderfully precocious Michael Levinson). From that moment on it’s a gorgeous presentation of messiness and fortitude.
After intermission, the audience returned to discover March’s drab practical set replaced with a far more modern, sparse, and interesting round playing space. Onto this improved stage sprang the same characters from the previous one-act, grown up a bit and joined by a pair of delightful “lesbians from next door” who offer perspective and comedy to both lighten and deepen the proceedings. Sarah Gibbons is a particular ray of sunshine, joining the all-round excellent cast as kosher caterer Cordelia as the group plans for Jason’s bar mitzvah. With far more compelling material, everyone is brilliant in this second piece, known independently as Falsettoland. Darrin Baker is hilarious and develops a heartfelt bond with Levinson’s Jason as the peace-keeping stepfather who joined the complicated family in March and Whizzer (the charming Eric Morin) returns to remind the audience that this is, in fact, a period piece and the sometimes self-involved characters are quickly marching into a tragically dark time in history for gay men in America. Falsettoland has both more comedy and higher stakes, making it the essential conclusion to March of the Falsettos’ slightly flawed setup. Led by the remarkable Stephen Patterson as Marvin, a wonderful cast paired with smart direction and beautiful (if uneven) material has made Falsettos a solid entry into the Action Up Stage pantheon.