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“Falsettos”: Still timeless 30 years later

The Retriever sent two of its resident theatre critics to see William Finn and James Lapine’s “Falsettos” at the Kennedy Center on Thursday. Here is what they had to say.

JULIA ARBUTUS: Parents often say it takes a village to raise a child, but sometimes it takes a gay man, his lover, his ex-wife, his psychiatrist and his two lesbian neighbors. “Falsettos” is the story of the gay man, Marvin (Max von Essen), who falls in love with Whizzer (Nick Adams) even though he is married to Trina (Eden Espinosa) and has a child named Jason, played by Jonah Mussolino on Thursday night. Nonetheless, Marvin still yearns for a “tight-knit family,” even while his falls apart.  

JOHANNA ALONSO: Of course, Marvin’s domestic fantasy is disrupted when his psychiatrist, Mendel (Nick Blaemire), proposes to Trina and inserts himself into their lives. Also featured are “the lesbians from next door,” Charlotte (Bryonha Marie Parham) and Cordelia (Audrey Cardwell), who support Marvin as his “teeny tiny band” experiences a myriad of ups, downs, fights and reconciliations.

ARBUTUS: This village becomes especially important to Jason’s upbringing in Act Two, when Charlotte diagnoses Whizzer with a disease that is never named throughout the musical. While there are many Broadway shows that address the AIDS crisis, “Falsettos” does so with both tact and humanity, and this Pride month production ensured no one left with dry eyes.

ALONSO: That humanity largely comes from William Finn’s, shall we say, eccentric cast of characters. Who did you feel gave the most stand-out performance of the night?

ARBUTUS: Max von Essen. He was absolutely born to play Marvin. I feel like he brought a softer side to Marvin than I’ve never seen in other productions of “Falsettos.” You could feel that he actually connected with the role, as a gay man, and that connection allowed Marvin to remain relatively sympathetic even as he makes a number of questionable decisions.

ALONSO: That’s huge because when Marvin is an irredeemable (expletive) in Act One, Act Two makes no sense; we’re supposed to believe all of his character development happens off-stage between acts, and that can be pretty hard to do. However von Essen pulls it off exceptionally well, especially with his tearful interpretation of the Act One finale, “Father to Son” — a song that usually feels unearned.

ARBUTUS: He plays Marvin as a father, which is incredibly important because it is extremely easy to forget that aspect of his identity and only look at him in terms of his relationship with Whizzer. Von Essen makes sure to tap into all aspects of Marvin’s character and portray him exceptionally three-dimensionally.

ALONSO: On the topic of three-dimensional portrayals, Nick Adams’s Whizzer was not that. Everything Adams did on stage felt far too perfect and choreographed, rather than real, subtle and spontaneous. That is a big detriment to a character who, like Whizzer, is not given a lot of characterization in the text of the script itself. It requires an actor who is willing to make big choices for the character and to show his imperfections. Adams did not do that. He looks like someone who played Fiyero once and never stopped.

ARBUTUS: In my opinion, there were two moments in Act Two where Adams did achieve a three-dimensional Whizzer, but those moments were when he played a secondary role to another character, once with Marvin and the other time with Jason.  

ALONSO: Not that Mussolino really needed any support whatsoever. Honestly, he was the highlight of almost every scene he was in. He gave such a nuanced, complex performance for such a young kid; I believed every moment. Considering Jason is sort of the glue that holds the family — and, therefore, the whole show — together, that is saying something.

ARBUTUS: His stage-mother, Espinosa, however, fell a bit flat for me. From her opening call of “slavery” in “Four Jews in a Room Bitching,” I was doubtful. Throughout the show, I kept comparing her performance to Stephanie J. Block’s performance in the 2016 revival, which is difficult to beat.

ALONSO: Even without making that comparison — which I am equally guilty of doing — her voice was just incredibly harsh. She also had some really weird vocal tics, like using a lot of straight-tone in seemingly arbitrary spots. This made her sound even more strained. Perhaps her only redeeming quality was the excellent chemistry between her and her stage husband (Nick Blaemire).

ARBUTUS: HIS NAME IS MENDELLLLLLLLLL. We both know Mendel is my absolute favorite character in probably all of musical theatre, so my standards were high for Blaemire. And he delivered. He brought a new sense of purpose and personality to the character that I adore, and he physically jumped pretty high in this show. I was just really impressed all around.   

ALONSO: Not to get all musical-theatre-historian on you, but I actually felt like his interpretation was really inspired by Chip Zien’s origination of the role — in the best way possible. I feel like it has been a long time since Broadway has seen a performer with that same sort of goofy, manic energy. I loved it.

ARBUTUS: I could talk about Blaemire’s performance for literal days, but our favorite lesbians next door deserve a mention. Though only in Act Two, Parham and Cardwell seamlessly fit into the cast as the “spiky lesbians.” They played the role of a supportive couple perfectly, and while Cardwell never rose beyond comic relief, Parham’s portrayal of Charlotte allowed for greater emotional moments, especially in “Something Bad is Happening.”

ALONSO: We would be remiss to end this review without mentioning the set. The show begins with a great big grey block alone on stage, and the block ends up being taken apart and turned into various set pieces. However in Act Two, after Whizzer is admitted to the hospital, the cartoonish building blocks are replaced with realistic hospital room furniture as the characters’ petty, childish complaints are replaced by real, life-altering challenges. Not to mention that just before the final song, I witnessed, for the first time in my life, a set change that elicited a full-on gasp from the audience.

ARBUTUS: I was one of those audience members, and let me say, I have never felt so many emotions from such a small detail. And that is the beauty of “Falsettos” — it is a show about small details. Every time you watch it, you notice a new line or note that adds something even more deep and meaningful to an already deep and meaningful show that feels timeless and brand new even 30 years after its original debut.

“Falsettos” will play at the Kennedy Center until June 23. Tickets are available online.  


Johanna Alonso contributed to this article.


Photo Credit: Max von Essen and Nick Adams, from the First National Tour of FALSETTOS. Photo by Joan Marcus.