“Life is never what you planned. Life is moments you can’t understand. And that is life.”
In “Falsettos,” an uppity New York City gay man and his family will be tested when life throws several curveballs their way. The 2016 Broadway revival of William Finn and James Lapine’s landmark musical, which played at Lincoln Center, comes to Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater for a limited run.
The sung-through musical is actually a two-in-one: a combination of the one-acts “March of the Falsettos” from 1981 and “Falsettoland” from 1990. And the cast assembled for this national tour is top-notch as they tear through Finn’s demanding lyrics that are chockablock with lightning-fast wordplay. Lapine also directs the production, featuring light and breezy choreography from Spencer Liff.
The bittersweet story explores the highs and lows of love, family and friendship, at the end of the 1970s and early 1980s, as the news of an unnamed disease is spreading. But that doesn’t figure in until late in the second act; first you have to get through all the emotional drama caused when Marvin leaves his wife and 10-year-old son for someone else, and a bizarre musical number with the cast decked out in neon and singing like Mickey Mouse.
The musical opens with the upbeat and offbeat song, “Four Jews in a Room Bitching,” featuring the male actors in biblical garb and carrying canes, which should clue in audiences on what’s to come. Soon after, we meet the self-centered and neurotic Marvin, who’s trying to establish a tight-knit family with ex-wife Trina (who’s now damaged and possibly diseased), solitary son Jason and male lover Whizzer—basically, he wants to have it all. The situation becomes more complicated for him, when Trina falls for his longtime psychiatrist, Mendel, whom she was also seeing for therapy. The arrival of their wedding invitation throws Marvin into a rage, slapping her in front of his son. There’s a lot to absorb in this action-packed first half, along with the aforementioned neon-fantasy number.
The second act is much calmer, as the adults have become less of a bunch of nervous wrecks and men-children. Dave Rockwell’s set design has matured as well, from the gray construction foam blocks to some actual furniture—while surrounded by the city skyline.
The sudden addition of a lesbian couple—Marvin’s next-door neighbors and friends Dr. Charlotte and Cordelia—in the second act is random but does bring some much-needed levity. It’s a nice break from all the incessant fighting and drama coming from the other two couples in the show. It’s through Dr. Charlotte that audiences get a sense of the early days of the AIDS epidemic (“Something Bad is Happening”).
“Falsettos” would have been more enjoyable if the characters were more likable and less annoying, and would just dial their over-the-top theatrics down. When Marvin and Trina aren’t pushing Jason to see a psychiatrist, they’re losing it over planning his bar mitzvah. Just when you think they’re happy, they’re still complaining about something.
The musical changes to a more serious tone when Whizzer falls ill, and you begin to care for the characters as they’re thinking more about each other. I just wish this became a larger part of the musical and not just a plot point on the tailend of the show.
Max von Essen and Nick Adams play off each other well as the egotistical Marvin and his hard-to-be-tamed boy toy Whizzer. They sizzle in their early time-bomb relationship and are heartwarming to watch in the later songs, “What More Can I Say?” and “Unlikely Lovers,” after they have spent some time apart and Marvin is no longer insufferable. As Whizzer, Adams is delightful to watch, from his heated exchanges with Marvin to his touching baseball-mentoring moment with Jason, who fails badly at the sport.
Eden Espinosa, whom viewers may have caught in last year’s “In the Heights” on the same stage, is terrific as the stressed-out housewife Trina. She gives a spectacular tour-de-force performance of “I’m Breaking Down,” which encapsulates Trina’s whirlwind of emotions. And Nick Blaemire will have you rooting for his sweet and quirky psychiatrist, who gives Trina a long-time-coming shot at happiness. The precocious Jason is exceptionally played by Jonah Mussolino, who shares the role with Thatcher Jacobs.
Although impeccably performed, “Falsettos” is a puzzling play—beloved by many—as it takes a piercing look at a modern family through some bizarre storytelling and shows how life isn’t always picture-perfect.