“Falsettos” helped define a new type of family, a blended one that included a gay dad leaving his wife for life and love with a man and instead of being emotionally scarred the son from his heterosexual union is what brings the family together. The production at the Ahmanson which opened last night, (Wednesday, 17 April 2019), was crisply directed by and staged with cleverly designed set of building blocks that makes this “Falsettos” well-constructed for an entertaining but meaningful evening about building bridges and community.
Originally, “Falsettos” was two one-act musicals: “March of the Falsettos” and “Falsettoland.” Yet the central character, Marvin, was created by William Finn (book, music and lyrics) for the one-act musical “In Trousers.” “In Trousers” premiered Off-Broadway in 1979 and is about a man, Marvin, who is married and has two kids, but as he is thinking about all of his past, he grapples with his realization that he has always preferred to be with men and not women. Although he loves his family life, he doesn’t love his wife like he should. The show was reworked in 1985, when it debuted on Broadway (Promenade Theatre) where the character of Whizzer was introduced. Finn had already brought Whizzer Brown into Marvin’s sphere in the Off-Broadway musical, “March of the Falsettos” in 1982.
This production of “Falsettos” (music and lyrics by Finn and book by Finn and James Lapine) at the Ahmanson is part of a national tour. Max Von Essen plays the man at the center of all the love connections, Marvin, with an assertive sense of self-absorption when he’s with Eden Espinosa’s Trina, his ex-wife. As the object of his affection Whizzer, Nick Adams is self-assured sexuality. He has no doubts, but he also manages to be best friends with Marvin and Trina’s son, Jason (played with a naturalistic enthusiasm by Thatcher Jacobs on opening night, but alternating with Jonah Mussolino).
This musical picks up from “In Trousers” end, with “Four Jews in a Room Bitching” who are Marvin, his son, Marvin’s therapist Mendel and Marvin’s son. In the first act, Marvin has already left left his wife Trina and found a lover, Whizzer. Whizzer is half-Jewish, but the four all don more biblical era costumes before doffing them for Trina to collect as the helpmate and housewife.
Marvin is seeing a psychiatrist, Mendel, and he wants “A Tight Knit Family” even though he’s broken the weave and become a loose end. He convinces Trina to see his psychiatrist, but Mendal meddles in the problematic mix by becoming involved with Trina (“Love is Blind”) who is technically not his patient. For Marvin, Whizzer is, in a sense, his first true love (“Thrill of First Love’), but Marvin still has issues about roles and wants Whizzer to be the perfect housewife, but in an era when homosexual relations were coming out of the closet and into the open and gay/lesbian marriage was not permitted in much of the US, Whizzer is more of the alley cat type than the house mouse Frau. Marvin also wants Whizzer to play chess, instead of fostering activities that Whizzer might enjoy.
To deal with his new blended family, Jason is sent to a psychiatrist, but that man, Mendel, will become his new stepfather which will send Marvin into a crazy spiral. Marvin will end 1979 alone but still part of a family, just uncoupled.
By Act II, we are in Falsettoland (“Welcome to Falsettoland”) and two years have passed. In 1981, Marvin is the loose end of this family, having broken up with Whizzer. Trina is married to Mendel. Into the mix are the caring lesbian neighbors, Dr. Charlotte (Bryonha Marie Parham) and her partner caterer Cordelia (Audrey Cardwell). Charlotte sounds the alarm about a growing epidemic which will become known as AIDS (“Something Bad Is Happening”) while Cordelia becomes involved in the catering for Jason’s Bar-Mitsva (“Miracle of Judaism”). Jason invites Whizzer to his baseball game (“The Baseball Game”) which at first angers his father, Marvin. Whizzer is able to give Jason some sound advice at bat and, eventually, Whizzer and Marvin become a couple again. Instead of playing chess they play racquetball. Whizzer usually soundly beats Marvin, but on one particular day, Whizzer can’t return the ball at all and collapses.
That might all sound like too much family dysfunction to be funny or even family friendly but aside from some swear words, this is a musical for today’s families and what is hopefully a more accepting culture. We’ve come a long way since the 1970s and in a more open society, perhaps there will be fewer marriages that break up like Marvin and Trinas which will make this musical feel quaint.
The national tour cast all have strong voices and director Lapine prevents Jacobs’ Jason from being to precocious and yet not being overshadowed by the more experienced cast members. Costume designer Jennifer Caprio gets a few laughs by reminding us of those Jane Fonda aerobics era exercise outfits (Trina) and doesn’t have us just laughing at the women, but also gives us the bright trainers from exercise guru Richard Simmons’ heyday for Mendel.
While the play begins with a strange oversized grey cube, that cube is a miracle of prop and set (set design by David Rockwell)–coming apart like a huge brain-teaser cube puzzle to become different pieces of set furniture. We literally have the building blocks of a blended family. Your family might leave wanting some of that convenient and fun furniture for yourselves.
“Falsettos” opened on Broadway in 1992 (John Golden Theatre) and went on to win Tony Awards for Best Book of a Musical (Lapine and Finn) and Best Original Score (Finn). The 2017 revival at the Walter Kerr Theatre was nominated for five Tonys and was adapted for the PBS program “Live from Lincoln Center” (airing on 27 October 2017) with different cast than the national tour.
“Falsettos” is one of those musicals that is has melodies that are pleasant enough and serve both the cast and the action well, but don’t in themselves have the right hook to worm their way into your brain. You won’t be whistling or humming anything from the show as you make your way home. Still, I was left with a happy feeling about where society has come since the 1970s with only a sense of sadness for the friends who didn’t survive due to AIDS.