A young Jewish boy named Jason, played by Alex Newberg, is at the center of a new Atlanta production about a married man who comes out as gay in 1980s New York at the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Jason is the son of the main character in “Falsettos,” the latest production at Actor’s Express, which began March 23 and runs through April 28.
The musical won two Tony Awards for Best Book of a Musical and Best Original Score.
As the musical progresses, Jason goes from being insecure about his own sexuality to embracing a full-fledged love of girls and preparing for a bar mitzvah. Newburg, who is 15, acclimated well to the role, which he says pulled from his Jewish background.
“I can actually relate to the role because two years ago I was prepping for my bar mitzvah and I can relate to the stress and anxiety that a family goes through when preparing for a bar mitzvah,” Newberg says. “I can’t relate to someone coming out in my family, but I can relate to preparing for a bar mitzvah.’’
The LGBTQIA themes in the production are usually reserved for mature audiences, but when a young boy is involved, extra care is taken to ensure he can handle the content, says director Freddie Ashley. Newberg is one of two young actors alternately playing the role of Jason, the son of main character Marvin.
“I think that it’s something they don’t have a lot of frame of reference for, not having grown up in a time when the AIDS epidemic was prevalent or on the front pages of the newspapers,” Ashley says. “I think it was about making sure we were there to answer any questions they had and break things down in a way that was easy to digest and make it a safe space for them.”
Newberg attends Holy Innocents’ Episcopal School after spending many years at the Davis Academy, where he learned the majority of his Hebrew. He brought his skills to the role during scenes in which he practices a prayer in Hebrew and chants his Torah portion at the bar mitzvah. During rehearsals, Ashley says Newberg was the go-to person for portraying an authentic bar mitzvah scene.
“The other boy is not Jewish, so Alex was a great resource in having been bar mitzvahed, in going through the steps and how to work with the prayer shawl, the ritual and process of putting it on, and he really helped Vinny [the other Jason] with his Hebrew pronunciations,” Ashley says. “He was really eager and gracious about helping.”
This is Newberg’s first non-ensemble professional role, and Ashley described him as very skilled and mature.
Newberg, who maintains a regular class schedule while performing in “Falsettos,” also moonlights as a part-time magician. He sparked an interest in magic at the age of four and developed his skills from there. Now, he performs at various b’nai mitzvah and parties.
He says he researched the role of Jason and eventually chose to audition because of the complex character.
“I really enjoyed the role because he’s a very profound character in the story. Not only does he have a lot of humorous songs and lines, but he also builds very deep, special connections with a lot of the other characters,” Newberg says. “It’s a very fun role to play, … being both young and innocent, but also this precocious young boy who is a kind of smart aleck.”
Jennifer Gelder, Newberg’s mother, says she didn’t have an issue with the content because of Newberg’s maturity, stating, “He’s handled it beautifully.” In general, she says her family is open and accepting of all kinds of people and she spoke with her son before the audition to make sure he knew what “Falsettos” was about and that he was comfortable with the subject matter.
“He’s an old soul; he’s very mature and I knew that Actor’s Express would handle it in a professional way, and it wouldn’t be too controversial in the way they portrayed it,” Gelder says. “Even though some find the show controversial, it’s still about family, love, family occasions, and being there for each other. I’m Reform, so I can only speak for me, but we’re pretty accepting of the LGBTQ community, which I like and I think that’s a great thing about Judaism.”
“Falsettos” is at Actor’s Express 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays through April 28. Actor’s Express is located in the King Plow Arts Center on Atlanta’s West side, 887 West Marietta St.