Panning a play or musical that appeared on Broadway and was Tony-nominated is not easy; clearly some people liked the show. However, the annoyingly stereotypical portrayals in “Falsettos,” which opened at the Center Theatre Group’s Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles on April 17, 2019, rang false and came-off as dated.
The plot of William Finn and James Lapine’s Tony Award-winning musical, “Falsettos,” could be simply summed up as a husband and father comes out and then leaves his family for his lover, who ultimately gets sick. Set in 1979 through 1981, it is clear where the “illness” is headed.
A more involved summation of “Falsettos” would describe a neurotic, pompous Jewish man named Marvin (Max von Essen) who leaves his stay-at-home wife Trina (Eden Espinosa) and soon-to-be-Bar-Mitzvahed son Jason (played by Thatcher Jacobs opening night, alternating performances with Jonah Mussolino). Marvin moves in with his handsome male lover, ridiculously name Whizzer (Nick Adams). Mendel, his shrink (Nick Blaemire) winds up falling for Trina. With the Bar Mitzvah approaching, Whizzer gets sick.
While it could have been a look at modern families and acceptance, there are many ways “Falsettos” falls short (along with some highlights):
- “Angels in America” and the HBO movie “And the Band Played On” hold up, telling the story of the initial years of the AIDS epidemic. But, in “Falsettos,” AIDS seems like another plot point to check off and does not really convey the issues those initially diagnosed faced. The character could have died of anything.
- The kitschy Jewish stereotyping is offensive. It starts with the opening number, “Four Jews in a Room Bitching” and gets worse with the Bar Mitzvah planning. Even the son’s Little League game features adults making cracks about how, except for Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax, Jews are not good at baseball, which would surprise the current major leaguers of Jewish descent.
- The characterizations in Falsettos are sketchy and not fully fleshed out. The exception is Mendel, the shrink, who has some multidimensional aspects, such as when he tries to parent Jason. However, it is off-putting that he sees each family member as a patient and talks about Trina with Marvin.
- Marvin is pretty much insufferable as a character. When he sings, “One day I’d like to be as mature as my son, who is 12 and a half,” it is probably as insightful as he gets.
- In the second act, lesbian neighbors suddenly join the ensemble: Dr. Charlotte (Bryonha Marie Parham) and wannabe caterer Cordelia (Audrey Cardwell). Their purpose in the plot seems to be catering the Bar Mitzvah and diagnosing Whizzer’s virus.
- There are some song-and-dance numbers in “Falsettos” that seem out of place. They include the first one featuring “Jews” in biblical garb and fake beards and the very weird “March of the Falsettos.”
- Espinosa does have a comical, rousing solo (“I’m Breaking Down”) about losing her husband to Whizzer.
- Overall, the singing is strong, but the melodies are unremarkable and unmemorable.
- Costume designer Jennifer Caprio does recreate some key looks from the period, including Trina’s leotard straight out of the Jane Fonda workout video and Mendel’s exercise garb that channeled Richard Simmons.
- David Rockwell’s set design contributes to the feeling that the two acts are disjointed. The first act features modular foam set pieces constantly rearranged as furniture. Then in Act Two, there is real furniture.
Long Road to Ahmanson
The show seems like pieces in a review that do not go together well. That is no surprise given the history of the show. Finn and Lapine actually started with a set of one-act musicals. They eventually combined two that featured the same characters into “Falsettos.” The show debuted on Broadway in 1992 and won Tony Awards for book as well as music and lyrics.
Then, the show returned to Broadway in 2016, with Christian Borle and Andrew Rannells heading the cast. “Falsettos” only lasted a few months, but aired on PBS’ “Live From Lincoln Center” in 2017. Earlier this year, the show was resurrected again and began its first national tour.
Aspects of “Falsettos” are dated and annoying. However, some people in the audience seemed to like the show, which will be at the Ahmanson in Los Angeles through May 19. The national tour will then continue with dates in Chicago; Washington, D.C.; and Charlotte, N.C. ahead. It will also be opening in London later this year.
By Dyanne Weiss
Performance April 17
Center Theatre Group: The Lincoln Center Theater Broadway Production of “Falsettos” Will Begin Performances at the Ahmanson Theatre April 16 Through May 19, 2019
Playbill: William Finn and James Lapine’s Falsettos Will Play London’s Other Palace
Jewish Journal: ‘Falsettos’ Explores What it Means to Be Jewish
Photo by Joan Marcus of Nick Blaemire and Max von Essen (top) from the first national tour of “Falsettos.”
Photo by Joan Marcus of Eden Espinosa, Thatcher Jacobs and Max von Essen (inset).