April 24, 2019 at 10:51 am PST | by John Paul King
‘Falsettos’ revival loses something in translation to larger space

Max von Essen and Nick Adams as Marvin and Whizzer in ‘Falsettos.’ (Photo by Joan Marcus)

When William Finn and James Lapine won Tony Awards for “Falsettos” in 1992, their musical already had a performance history dating back more than 10 years.

The show began life as a trilogy of Off-Broadway one-acts (“In Trousers,” “March of the Falsettos,” and “Falsettoland,” in 1979, 1981 and 1990, respectively) that centered on an upper-middle-class New York Jewish man named Marvin, who leaves his wife for a male lover but wants to raise their son together as one large, unconventional family.

It’s worth bearing that history in mind as you watch the National Tour of 2016’s revival production, currently onstage at the Ahmanson. Thinking of “Falsettos” as a theatrical snapshot of an era helps remind us there’s a reason for its enduring significance — something that might be helpful when confronted with the petty, willful, vicious and insufferably self-centered characters that inhabit it.

During the first half, we watch as Marvin tries to navigate (in song, of course) the twists and turns of raising his son Jason, whose neuroses are already developed to near-Woody-Allen level, with both his ex-wife Trina and his male partner Whizzer at his side. Trina is not entirely sold on the arrangement and has a hard time keeping all her resentments at bay; Whizzer is vain, shallow and perhaps promiscuous on the side, and his tumultuous relationship with Marvin is as much a competition as a love affair. Then there’s Mendel, a therapist who treats both Marvin and Trina, but who’s also in love with Trina and on his way to becoming part of this already-complicated family himself.

By the time we reach intermission, we might be wondering why we should care about such an unlikable crew.

In act two, it’s two years later. Mendel and Trina are now together, Marvin and Whizzer are not, though Whizzer is still a part of the picture, thanks to his close relationship with young Jason. Now included are Dr. Charlotte and Cordelia, the “lesbians next door,” who provide a welcome representation of healthy relationship goals. As plans for Jason’s upcoming Bar Mitzvah consume the family conversation, Whizzer falls ill with the mysterious illness Dr. Charlotte has been seeing lately in her gay patients and suddenly the family is pulled together by something bigger than their petty squabbles.

Sticking with them all the way, we get to see them redeemed by their discovery of the importance of love and family over the self-centered, fear-based concerns that tend to tear us apart. The “falsetto” motif helps evoke a theme of fragile, emotionally immature masculinity (something that drives the show) and the bittersweet experience that finally unites Marvin’s family affords them (and us) the opportunity to grow.

It’s a grueling journey we’re asked to go on with these people, though. While each have their endearing traits, it’s sometimes hard to care enough about them to want to see them all the way through.  Finn’s clever, funny and biting score fills the show with superlative moments that go a long way toward earning the emotional power of its climax, though it might be argued that once it comes, it pushes a little too far into “tearjerker” territory, but that’s a matter of taste.

It’s the historical perspective, though, that makes this “Falsettos” resonate more deeply than expected.

Seeing it as a product of an era liberated by the “sexual revolution” but also known as the “Me” decade, the story of a married man who comes out of the closet but wants to keep both his family and his boyfriend was obviously part of a groundswell of groundbreaking narratives documenting cultural change; in addition, if Marvin and his loved ones bruise themselves and each other in their efforts to build an “alternative family,” knowing they live in a time before that was even a “thing,” makes it possible to forgive them, a little, for being so terrible at it.

Likewise, the raw immediacy of emotion with which the show evokes the dawning of the AIDS epidemic has the unmistakable authenticity of springing from the very heart of that historical moment.  These characters once went through these experiences in front of audiences who were going through the same things; watching them now, so many years later, permits us to reflect on how much has changed (or not changed), while still reconnecting us with the tragic realities of that time.

This revival, directed by Lapine himself (he also directed the original Broadway production), plays hard to the show’s strengths, which almost makes up for some of its weaknesses. The theatrical staging, utilizing a giant “puzzle cube” of interlocking pieces which are continuously reconfigured by the players throughout the story, keeps us constantly in mind of the show’s presentational nature, and the surprisingly intricate, often athletic choreography by Spencer Liff springs out with larger-than-life vigor.

The cast is a talented ensemble of heavy hitters who acquit themselves well with the difficult material.  Eden Espinosa, as Trina, is the show-stealing stand-out; her brassy belt is behind some of the evening’s biggest moments, like her kitchen soliloquy song, “I’m Breaking Down.” Also worth singling out is Nick Adams, whose rakishly charming Whizzer manages to be the show’s most sympathetic character despite his seeming selfishness; a bonus is his chemistry with Max Von Essen’s Marvin, also deftly played.

Ironically enough, the quality of the production underscores another of the show’s inherent flaws. It’s a piece that began life as intimate theater, performed in small venues where every nuance could be seen; blown up to the level of Broadway spectacular, it feels a little overstuffed — ingenious modular set notwithstanding — and the need to play “to the back of the house” sometimes bulldozes over the smaller subtleties.

Even so, it’s an honorable rendering of “Falsettos.” It may never rise to the level of the musical’s ambitions, but it creates some beautiful moments as it tries; perhaps more importantly, it serves as a kind of historical marker in the landscape of queer culture, and as such, it’s worth a visit.

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