Theater Review: FALSETTOS (National Tour)

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by Tony Frankel on April 18, 2019

in Theater-Los Angeles,Tours


The musical masterpiece Falsettos follows Marvin, an appealing, brainy, anxious, obsessive, wealthy Jewish gay man who struggles to create a tight-knit family out of his eclectic array of core relationships: an ex-wife, new boyfriend, adolescent son, psychiatrist, and “neighbors who are lesbians from next door.” Amidst a series of monumental life changes from 1979 to 1981 — including his son’s impending Bar Mitzvah and the onset of what was then known as “Gay Plague” — he is forced to reckon with his own views on love, responsibility and what it means to be a man.

This is one of the greatest American musicals in the canon, yet I was shocked to discover that no one among the dozens and dozens of aficionados I spoke to at last night’s opening had ever seen it before. Fortunately for them and the hushed, attentive, crowd who knew they were in the presence of a miracle, this is the best production I’ve seen of all the incarnations which led up to William Finn and James Lapine’s Tony Award-winning musical. This Lincoln Center outing at the Ahmanson Theatre is part of a ridiculously short national tour through June 30, but fortunately, you have until May 19 in Los Angeles to catch the power, humor and pathos of these very lovable, imperfect, neurotic people who struggle to survive day-to-day life without breaking down as they march along.

You know the plot from my first sentence: Marvin (Max von Essen) leaves his wife Trina (Eden Espinosa) and teenage son Jason (Thatcher Jacobs — alternating with Jonah Mussolino) for his gorgeous and sensitive new boy toy, Whizzer (Nick Adams). Marvin’s psychiatrist, Mendel (Nick Blaemire), falls in love with Trina and pursues her while he treats Jason at home. In Act II, we meet Dr. Charlotte (Bryonha Marie Parham) and her Kosher caterer lover, Cordelia (Audrey Cardwell), who become entangled with the Bar Mitzvah shenanigans.

There is really no way to explain how much the variety within the music adds to the tone of the story: Finn finds more melodious and oral twists in one tune than today’s songsmiths do in an entire show — you’ll get that right off the bat in “Four Jews in a Room Bitching.” Ragtime, power ballads, syncopated intricacies, and Golden Age Broadway bounce all feature Michael Starobin‘s wholly original orchestrations, played beautifully by Vadim Feichtner‘s upstage “teeny-tiny band.” Dan Moses Schreier‘s sound design — the best at the Ahmanson in years — brings the instruments way down so we can hear every tricky lyric from the articulative cast.

Ah, yes, the cast. Somehow topping the Broadway revival, this tour nabbed the hottest, in-demand talent in the land. While von Essen and Adams offer a perfect crash course in messy love, Blaemire astoundingly turns the two-faced psychiatrist into a Shakespearean fool, and Parham’s pile-driving pipes makes her Dr. Charlotte a force to be reckoned with.

How is it possible that I’ve seen Faith Prince, Melanie Chartoff, Barbara Walsh, Stephanie J. Block (and more) as Trina, only to have Ms. Espinosa (of Wicked fame) erase them from memory? Giddy, sweet, and empathetic, this comedienne turned “I’m Breaking Down” into a coup de théâtre. And when she pines how tired she is of all the happy, stupid men who rule the world, you would think her song was written yesterday — yet it was composed almost 40 years ago.

There are actually three “Marvin Shows”: The first, In Trousers, played Off-Off-Broadway in 1979. Finn’s sparkling, ear-catching music and clever, amusing, surprising, sophisticated lyrics combined with his challenging subject matter (I wonder if today’s audiences know how controversial it was to have an openly gay character in a musical) proved him to be the most exciting songwriter to materialize since Sondheim. In Trousers is a song cycle with a slight plot compared to that of March of the Falsettos — debatably the best score of the ‘80s — which played Off-Broadway in 1981.

In 1990, Falsettoland, the last and most sobering of the Marvin musicals, followed its characters into the age of AIDS. The latter two one-acts were combined into a two-act musical, Falsettos, which opened on Broadway in 1992. This is when Finn won Tony Awards for best score and best book — co-written by director James Lapine, who delves even deeper into characterization for this revival, seamlessly and hilariously choreographed by Spencer Liff (those delirious jumps!) in and around David Rockwell‘s interlocking lightweight pieces.

The combination of whimsy, joy and gut-wrenching poignancy is like nothing you’ve seen before. At nearly three hours, you won’t want it to end.

photos by Joan Marcus

Lincoln Center Theater Broadway Production
national tour
reviewed at L.A.’s Ahmanson Theatre; ends on May 19, 2019
for tickets, call 213.972.4400 or visit CTG

tour continues through June 30, 2019
for dates and cities, visit Falsettos

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