At the James M. Nederlander Theatre
By Dan Zeff
Chicago – “Falsettos” originated as three separate one act musicals– “The March of the Falsettos” (1981), “In Trousers” (1987), and “Falsettoland” (1990). Playwright-composer William Finn intended all three shows to be performed as a trilogy in a single night. But in 1991 the first and third plays were combined into one production, called “Falsettos,” and that’s the show, with minor alterations, now being presented at the Nederlander Theatre.
“Falsettos” takes place from 1979 through 1981. It describes how the bisexual Marvin divorces his wife Trina and 12-year old son Jason to enter a relationship with Marvin’s friend Whizzer. In due course Trina marries Marvin’s psychiatrist Mendel, who had been hot for the woman before her marital breakup. Whizzer and Marvin separate but then get back together. At the end of the second play Whizzer dies from the newly emerged AIDS disease, leaving Marvin devastated with grief.
The show has a strongly east coast Jewish flavor, beginning with the comic number “Four Jews in a Room Bitching” and ending with Jason celebrating his bar mitzvah in the hospital room where Whizzer lies dying. The show is performed almost entirely through singing, broken up into about three dozen songs separated by an intermission. The first act consists of the five core characters—Marvin, Whizzer, Trina, Mendel, and Jason. They are joined in the second act Charlotte and Cordeilia, a pair of next door neighbors who are lesbians, added apparently to supply a little comic relief and to funnel information on the AIDS audience to the audience (Charlotte is a physician).
Back in the late 1900’s, the “Falsettos” plays were celebrated as an honest exploration of family dynamics and more importantly about love, both straight and gay, with much praise heaped about William Finn and director-collaborator James Lapine. Reviewers noted that the show emphasized this tale of friends and lovers with warmth and sympathy, and without camp. There are no gay jokes and the Jewish stereotypes are delivered affectionately. In one scene, Jason flounders on a boy’s baseball team while the adults in his life comment from the sidelines “We’re watching Jewish boys/Who cannot play baseball/Play baseball.”
I suspect that some of the popularity of Finn’s plays when they first appeared came from their intense portrait of gay love, minus the clichés and stereotypes of earlier gay-oriented plays like “The Boys in the Band”(1968). And the horror of the AIDS epidemic in the 1980’s upped the dramatic ante on the last portion of “Falsettos.” The disease hadn’t even been given a name yet, recognized in Finn’s score only as “Something Bad Is Happening.”
Today, the realistic depiction of gay life on the stage, and on television, is commonplace, and AIDS has pretty much been off the social and medical radar for a couple of decades. So, if the show’s subject matter isn’t totally dated, it’s at least familiar enough to diminish its dramatic impact. Marvin and Whizzer emerge as self involved and shallow. Whizzer is a self acknowledged “pretty boy” coasting through life avoiding commitment. Marvin selfishly wants it all, a secure and comfortable home life with wife and child and an exciting male lover, oblivious to the emotional damage his choices inflict on Trina and Jason. Mendel is primarily comic relief for much of the show.
The only adult character the audience can connect with is Trina, who is too good for any of the adult males but soldiers on, valiantly trying to be a good mother and wife. And props to young Jason for navigating through the emotional thicket of his domestic life as a mini adult, minus the cutesy affectations of a kid in an adult world.
Some of the scenes seem like filler. The opening “Four Jews in a Room Bitching” number has the characters wearing Biblical costumes for some reason and cavorting around the stage, apparently just to make the audience laugh. In the show’s biggest puzzlement, the four males indulge in a dance called “March of the Falsettos” with day-glo highlights to their costumes. The stage directions state that the effect should be both silly and weird, to which might be added the word “pointless.” The scene at Jason’s baseball game is funny but contributes nothing to the overall arc of the narrative. The final scenes in the hospital are powerful but go on too long and Whizzer’s defiant “You Gotta Die Sometime” seems emotionally manipulative. And one wonders why Marvin and the other adult characters gave no thought to the possibility of Marvin contracting AIDS from Whizzer.
Whatever the defects in the storyline, the performers in this touring production are all first rate. I give pride of place to Eden Espinosa for her splendid three-dimensional performance as the plucky and conflicted Trina, trying to hold herself and her son together while dealing with the humiliation of losing her husband to another man. Espinosa lays her character’s struggles on the line with the two best solos of the evening, “I’m Breaking Down” and “Trina’s Song.”
Within the limitations of their characters as written, we get fine performances by Max Von Essen as Marvin, Nick Adams as Whizzer, and Nick Blaemire as Mendel. Bryonha Marie Parham and Audrey Cardwell do what they can with the grafted on roles of the two lesbians. But for sure everyone in the ensemble has outstanding vocal chops. Thatcher Jacobs (who alternates with Jonah Mussolino) does fine work as Jason, an important and demanding. Congratulations to Jacobs for credibly playing a kid as a kid.
A special shout-out goes to David Rockwell’s set design. The set is dominated by a large Rubic’s cube/Lego-like construction that can be configured as tables and chairs and doorways with the shift of assorted pieces handled on stage by the characters. The multipurpose cube got as much appreciation from the audience as the live members of the ensemble. The excellent small band conducted by P. Jason Yarcho is positioned high above the rear of the stage, hidden by a giant cutout of a big city skyline. Throughout the evening, most of the bursts of audience applause were in recognition of the animated and witty bits of dancing sprinkled throughout the show by choreographer Spencer Liff. This isn’t a dancing show but the dances and the fine hoofing by the cast provided most of the production’s best moments.
The first half of “Falsettos” is mostly at the sitcom level .By the intermission I was pondering whether the show had exceeded its “sell” date as a significant work in modern American theater, in the same conversation as a “Rent.” The production at the Nederlander still can be admired for its inventive staging and its Broadway caliber performances. How much the story and characters succeed is up to the viewer’s eye and ear. I can’t imagine the performances being any better. Unfortunately, what grabbed audiences and reviewers in the 1980’s and 1990’s may not have the same relevance and dramatic impact today.
The show gets a rating of
“Falsettos” runs through June 9 at the Nederlander Theatre, 24 West Randolph Street. Performances are Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday at 2 and 7:30 p.m., Saturday at 2 and 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 and 7:30 p.m. (no evening performance June 9). Tickets are $27 to $98. Visit www.BroadwayinChicago.com.
Contact Dan at ZeffDaniel@yahoo.com. May 2019
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