BWW Review: FALSETTOS Tugs at the Heartstrings at Kennedy Center
William Finn's 1992 Broadway musical Falsettos had a much-celebrated Broadway revival in 2016, but - while I appreciated the score and the cast - I was left a bit cold watching the intimate show from the dreaded balcony at the Walter Kerr Theatre. Fast forward to now when the national touring production is playing the Kennedy Center. I am not sure whether it was my admittedly much better seat, my mood, or both, but I was much more emotionally drawn in to the plight of this not quite standard tight-knit family.
Featuring a score by William Finn and a book by Finn and Director James Lapine, the musical is comprised of two one-acts - March of the Falsettos and Falsettoland - which premiered off-Broadway in 1981 and 1990, respectively. When we first meet Marvin (Max von Essen), his son Jason (Jonah Mussolino at my performance), Marvin's image-conscious boyfriend Whizzer (Nick Adams), and Marvin's ex-wife/Jason's mother Trina (Eden Espinosa), it's clear that they're all trying to figure out how they all fit together as a single unit and how to best relate to one another. The slightly neurotic Trina is still not over the fact that Marvin left her for another man and Jason is having a hard time adjusting too. Whizzer and Marvin's relationship is not all puppies and rainbows either; they certainly love each other, but they're also very different from one another.
Marvin and Trina enlist the help of a psychiatrist, Mendel (Nick Blaemire), to help them individually sort out their feelings. Mendel falls for Trina, which changes the dynamics even further. It's not a typical familial scenario for sure, but they're all there for Jason as he embarks on those tumultuous teenage years.
Time passes and relationships change (Trina and Marvin marry, and Marvin and Whizzer break up). Friends like Dr. Charlotte (Bryonha Marie Parham) and her girlfriend Cordelia (Audrey Cardwell) are more like family who are ready celebrate during the best moments, but also remain steadfast in support when things go deeply wrong. Marvin and Whizzer eventually find their way back together after watching Jason and a bunch of awkward Jewish boys playing baseball. A serious and unfamiliar illness threatens to change the family dynamic again, but everyone's love for one another remains unchanged.
Falsettos isn't an AIDS musical and it's not a standard family drama either. Offering a nearly perfect mix of comedy and drama, it's a showcase of people trying to find their way through life together. While it takes place in a very specific location (New York City) and a very specific time period (the 1970s and 1980s) that was fraught with very specific challenges, the themes are timeless. Especially as portrayed by this cast, you can't help, but get wrapped up in the "unlikely family's" journey, both the highs and lows. Finn's varied, musically interesting, and emotionally compelling score - certainly the best he's produced to date - is a key ingredient to allowing the audience to feel it all and become immersed in the story.
Admittedly, I still wasn't wild about Lapine's staging concept. Though David Rockwell's set is highly creative and reinforces the prevalent theme of figuring things out as you go and picking up and arranging the pieces as needed, watching the cast expertly arrange the white blocks can, at times, take you out of the moment. At least it did for me. Luckily, this skilled cast - and the story - is adept at drawing you back in almost immediately.
Max von Essen's Marvin is expertly sung, as expected, but he also excels in believably portraying a man just trying to figure the twists and turns out. Nick Adams embodies Whizzer in every way and although I was slightly disappointed with his rendition of "You Gotta Die Sometime" (it didn't pack the emotional punch it probably should have though it was well sung), every other aspect of his performance is emotionally on point. Eden Espinosa is practically perfect as Trina. I've been a fan of her incredible vocal skill since I saw her as a standby in Elphaba in Wicked, and then again in Brooklyn: The Musical, but this role is - at the very least - much more of an acting challenge. Her Trina is real, and while her take on "I'm Breaking Down" is the spotlight-stealing moment of the show, she is never too over-the-top. Her comedic chops are quite impressive, but her rendition of "Holding to the Ground" is full of dramatic impact. Jonah Mussolino's acting chops defy his age and he has a natural and adorable presence onstage; he can carry a scene just as well as his older castmates.
It took me awhile to warm up to Nick Blaemire as the awkward and eccentric psychiatrist, but he won me over by the end of the first act. He fully inhabits the role. Bryonha Marie Parham and Audrey Cardwell have less stage time than everyone else (they first appear in Act Two), but they are vocally impressive and give wholly believable performances as the supportive lesbians next door.
Spencer Liff's choreography enhances the lighthearted moments in the show ("March of the Falsettos" and "Four Jews in a Room Bitching") as does Jennifer Caprio's time and personality-appropriate costumes.
Overall, Falsettos makes a strong impression at Kennedy Center and is most definitely worth the trip.
Running Time: 2 hours and 40 minutes, including one intermission.
FALSETTOS plays at the John F Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts - located at 2700 F Street, NW in Washington, DC - through June 23, 2019. For tickets, call the box office at 202-467-4600, or purchase them online.