By Barry Reszel
By all professional standards, the touring production of Lincoln Center’s 2017 multi-Tony-winning revival of William Finn and James Lapine’s groundbreaking musical Falsettos is excellent.
Its triumphant return to Broadway in the Fall of 2016 made for a happy reunion for Composer/Lyricist Finn and Playwright/Director Lapine. Indeed, the show has a long and storied history that began in 1981, when the one-act musical, March of the Falsettos, premiered. The story of a gay man named Marvin, his lover Whizzer, Marvin’s wife Trina, son Jason and their psychiatrist Mendel, March of the Falsettos was a critical success and enjoyed a long Off-Broadway run.
Fast-forward to 1990, when a second new musical by Finn and Lapine, Falsettoland, continued the story of Marvin and his extended family in the early days of the AIDS crisis. Falsettoland repeated the success of its predecessor with rave reviews. Then in 1992, the two one-act musicals were combined into one and opened on Broadway as Falsettos, where it ran for more than a year and won Tony Awards for Finn’s score and Finn and Lapine’s book. The 2016 revival brought Lapine back to direct a production seen on PBS stations nationwide.
The story of neurotic Marvin, his wife, lover, about-to-be-Bar-Mitzvahed son, their psychiatrist and the lesbians next door purports to be a reminder that love can tell a million stories. To be sure there are moments of tenderness that do just that. And Lord knows the Finn songbook is well sung by a qualified cast. Max Von Essen strongly leads the cast as Marvin; Nick Adams is a gorgeous Whizzer; Marvin’s wife Trina, the most interesting character of the lot, though she’s hardly to be found act two, is expertly portrayed by Eden Espinosa; Nick Blaemire is a terrifically neurotic Mendel; Young Thatcher Jacobs sings the heck out of the role of son Jason; and the “lesbians next-door” are wonderfully portrayed by Bryonha Marie Parham and Cordelia, Audrey Cardwell. Additionally, David Rockwell’s Manhattan skyline set with a functional Rubik’s Cube of moveable blocks and Jeff Croiter’s sometimes-neon, intriguing lighting design are true highlights.
But perhaps what this touring production does best is to remind audiences just how far we as a society have come.
Because what may have been surprising in 1981 is commonplace in 2019. Scandal then, run-of-the-mill now. Yesterday’s illegal is today’s recreational. And all of that speaks to our increasing tolerance, even as there are multiple hills yet to be climbed.
Theatrically, to one observer whose virgin voyage into this work came via this tour stop, Falsettos comes across as dated. The homosexual couples are near stereotypes. Tossing in Jewish traditions and clichés around the son’s bar mitzvah feels contrived. And the inability to mention AIDS, rather calling it a disease “that men give to men,” simply screams 1981. Added to that, this reviewer finds Falsettos‘ style to be halting, almost workshoppy, with a bunch of songs (none truly memorable) and various vignettes thrown against the (fourth) wall to see which ones might work and, more importantly, might work together. It isn’t surprising to learn this is a house built over decades with a variety of additions; it just feels like each addition came from a different architect.
In fairness, those familiar with the work might well consider this an exceptionally well-performed slice of nostalgia. But for those who are not, Falsettos is an early-80s period piece that’s comic, tragic and, therefore, lacking true identity, no matter how well performed it is.
Broadway in Chicago presents “Falsettos” through June 9 at the Nederlander Theatre, 24 W. Randolph, Chicago. More information and tickets are available here.