My voice didn’t change until the end of my sophomore year of high school. Subsequently, I spent the better part of my teenage years embarrassed by my less-than-manly command of a crowd whilst conversing. Last night at the Ahmanson Theatre, I revisited the devastating drama that I endured before coming out in my early twenties. The Lincoln Center Theater Production of Falsettos hosted by Center Theater Group is a well-executed and important piece of musical theater. It’s shocking to me that in the 21st Century, a story set in the late 70’s and early 80’s could still be relevant––essential––in keeping themes of acceptance, understanding, love, and loss in the spotlight.
I’m embarrassed to admit that I walked into the theater last night knowing very little about the musical that was born out of a trio of one-act Off-Broadway musicals before making its Broadway debut as Falsettos in 1992. I imagine that (at that time), the themes and content challenged theatergoers and forced an uncomfortable dialogue amongst the culturally diverse crowds that a Broadway run generally attracts.
The musical, book by James Lapin and William Finn with music and lyrics also by Mr. Finn, examines the life of a New York family that is anything but normal. Marvin, portrayed effortlessly by Broadway veteran Max Von Essen, is the recently “out” Jewish father to 12-year-old, Jason (Thatcher Jacobs), and ex-husband of Trina, masterfully played by the superb Eden Espinosa.
The opening number skillfully sets up the tone, pace, and structure of the show whilst informing the audience of the backstory and relationships of the small, talented, ensemble cast. In, Four Jews in a Room Bitching, we join Marvin, his boyfriend Whizzer (Nick Adams), his son Jason, and his therapist Mendel (Nick Blaemire), in a comical confession of their situation. The act continues to unravel a series of seriously flawed, but relatable circumstances that leave the broken family working through their disfunction. The story of a father coming out of the closet and the energy of his lover, his ex-wife, son, and a neurotic psychiatrist who ends up falling for aforementioned ex-wife––it sounds complicated––but honestly this is the “new normal” that we’ve come to expect in 2019. Still, I remind you that incarcerations of this musical hit stages in the early 80’s––incredibly ahead of its time.
Eden Espinosa delivers a WICKEDly brilliant performance in, I’m Breaking Down, simultaneously laughing, crying, and belting her way through her conflicted circumstances with nuance making it effortless for the audience to relate to her pain and understand the dynamics of a broken marriage.
Act II ushers the audience into, Welcome to Falsettoland, another astute musical number that introduces two new characters, Dr. Charlotte (Bryonha Marie Parham) and Cordelia (Audrey Cardwell), the lesbian lovers and Marvin’s next-door neighbors. We also see the orchestra silhouetted by the New York skyline upstage of the action, providing a jazzy overtone to the medley of musical confessions that thrust us deeper into the lives of these complicated and accessible relationships. Now two years later, we feel the impact of Marvin’s choices and without ever mentioning the deadly epidemic that swept through the 1980’s by name, we’re exposed to the gravity of the story in, Something Bad Is Happening. By the end of the show, the entire extended family gathers around a dying Whizzer, in his hospital bed to throw a Bar Mitzvah––yes, a Bar Mitzvah––for Jason who, not unlike many unconventional families, is the glue that keeps the love alive.
This is the perfect opportunity to mention choreographer, Spencer Liff who does a marvelous job. Where another choreographer could have easily overcomplicated the show’s small but mighty cast of accomplished singers, the two-time EMMY® nominated choreographer, channeled his lifelong career in theater to craft clever, story-driven movement that is substantial, light-hearted and answers the demands of each scene with a healthy balance of pedestrian jumps, turns, tableaus and most astonishingly––seamless set changes.
Speaking of set changes, I was intrigued with how efficiently the cast transformed the stage into an array of settings. Tony® Award winning scenic designer, David Rockwell imagined a world almost entirely out of a large cube that sits center stage at the top of the show and over the evolution of Falsettos morphs into an array of scenarios. Again, I call attention to Mr. Liff and director, James Lapine for navigating the actors through a Tetris-like maze of transformable blocks. Like children on a jungle gym the cast climbs and conquers the shapes with ease, harmoniously capturing the imagination of the audience.
Mr. Lapine did an extraordinary job of harnessing the dynamic cast and the intricate set changes, with the balance and priority the story demands. How refreshing it was to see three couples: a straight couple, a gay couple, and a lesbian couple on stage and in love. Which is why I was disappointed to return to my seat after intermission to realize that the older couple sitting next to me had left. They were the exception in an otherwise diversely packed house of mothers and sons, friends, lovers, and partners of all ages, unanimously cheering on the overwhelming theme of love. Clearly, this subject matter continues to provoke the demands of humanity; how timely a reminder of how far we’ve come and how far we’ve yet to go. Thankfully, the revival is touring the country, daring people to open their minds and hearts.
A simple task really, especially with this extraordinary cast. It’s impossible for me not to mention Max Von Essen and Eden Espinosa one more time, because they are both sublime. They sing the (often complicated) music with a confident and dazzling simplicity. Shout out to Bryonha Marie Parham and Audrey Cardwell for joining the story midstream and blending in (while standing out) with their honest, layered, funny, and approachable depiction of a couple in love.
This story needs to be told for the generation of kids who grew up not knowing how hard the men and women before them struggled. This story deserves to be told, because it speaks to the heart with sincerity, satire, and truth. I stayed hidden in the closet for much longer than I needed to, because I was uniformed and afraid. Falsettos is an unconventional love story that refocuses our attention on subject matter that, thirty years later, we as a country are still struggling to talk about openly: how to love one another. Falsettos is playing now through May 19, 2019 at The Ahmanson Theatre.
For information and tickets, click here.
For see the Ahmanson Theatre season lineup, click here.