The mile-a-minute lyrics, the ever-changing building-block scenery and the cliché-heavy characters of Falsettos give the impression at first glance that William Finn’s two-act musical is a screwball sex comedy about who we love and who we sleep with, especially when those aren’t always the same person. But the show endures (it debuted in 1992; the 2016 Broadway revival is now on tour) because, thankfully, it is so much more. Set in 1979 and ostensibly built around Marvin—husband to Trina, father to Jason and lover to Whizzer—Falsettos is certainly a comedy, but it’s the way the show navigates life’s curious curveballs that make it worth revisiting.
The Broadway revival received rave reviews, and though none of this touring cast was part of that production, they do the material more than justice as they speed through a few years in the life of this mixed-up, made-up family. Max von Essen is Marvin; Nick Adams is a ridiculously cut Whizzer; Thatcher Jacobs and Jonah Mussolino trade off as Jason; and Eden Espinosa, best known as understudy to Idina Menzel’s Elphaba, is Trina. The small cast is rounded out by Nick Blaemire as Mendel, the shrink; Bryonha Marie Parham as Dr. Charlotte and Audrey Cardwell as Cordelia, the lesbians next door.
The first half of the show (before the lesbians even enter the picture) covers quite a bit of ground: Marvin leaves Trina and Jason for a life with Whizzer; Trina starts seeing Marvin’s psychiatrist Mendel, first professionally and then not; Jason questions everything he thought he knew about life and love and family; and Whizzer gets a kick out of stringing Marvin along. The song list in the first act alone is half a page long, and half of those are laments about love to one extent or another. That each of these characters gets their moment to show us exactly who they are (Espinosa’s “I’m Breaking Down” is a hands-down showstopper) serves to welcome us into their world, as non-traditional as it may be.
The familiarity earned at the front end pays off big by the second act as we jump ahead to 1981; everyone’s had some time to get used to their new normal, and for a fleeting moment it seems as though everything might just work out. Marvin is settled in his new bachelor life, Trina and Mendel have made a home together, and even the lesbians next door are part of the gang, Cordelia offering to cater Jason’s upcoming bar mitzvah. This chosen family might not look quite like anyone else’s, but then again that’s the point. Marvin summons the courage from somewhere to upend not only his own life, but that of his wife and son as well, in order to live as a more true version of himself. Though it sets in motion a series of ripple effects that require those around him to recalibrate accordingly, Falsettos succeeds in recognizing that this sort of honesty is an act of courage, one that doesn’t dilute one’s ability to love those who matter most.
As the second act progresses, slight changes in the production hint at the increased weight of the proceedings, as reality creeps in around this tight-knit group and the AIDS epidemic hits very close to home. Gone are the playful, oversized building blocks that previously created whichever staging the plot called for; only a real hospital bed will do for this latest turn of events. By the final notes of Falsettos, we’ve seen Marvin, Trina, Jason and the gang through so much that it’s almost hard to believe the two acts are of the same show. Which makes sense, as the production in fact began as two separate one-act shows about Marvin and his circle, only later combined into the Falsettos we know today. Together, the two parts form a cohesive, comprehensive glimpse into a life that’s messy, neurotic, hilarious, beautiful and tragic.
Falsettos runs through June 9 at the James W. Nederlander Theatre (formerly the Oriental), 24. W. Randolph St. Running time is 2.5 hours. Tickets are $27-$98 for shows Tuesday-Sunday.
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