Most people hear the term “falsetto” and think of the vocal technique used by male singers to sing notes above their natural range, often resulting in a sound that is strikingly high and, in a sense, untraditional. It is not very obvious why the musical Falsettos, which opened last night at Center Theatre Group’s Ahmanson Theatre as part of a national tour, has the title it does, but it is about an untraditional family. Sung-through with music and lyrics by William Finn and a book by Finn and James Lapine, who also directed this production that was nominated for five Tony Awards for its Broadway run, the story follows a “tight knit family” with relationships unlike most.
Marvin (Max Von Essen) and Trina (Eden Espinosa) have a son, Jason (Thatcher Jacobs). But, Marvin falls in love with Whizzer (Nick Adams) and divorces Trina, who then falls in love with Mendel (Nick Blaemire), the psychiatrist shared by her and Marvin. Add in the “lesbians who live next door,” Cordelia (Audrey Cardwell) and Dr. Charlotte (Bryonha Marie Parham) and it’s quite the cast of characters, especially for the time period during which the story takes place. Act one begins in 1979 and act two picks up two years later, at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic that ultimately changes all of the characters’ stories irreversibly.
Falsettos originated as a trilogy of one acts, and the latter two, March of the Falsettos and Falsettoland were combined into this one musical for the original Broadway production in 1992. This ultimately explains a lot about the finished product, which does not feel entirely cohesive. Much like its neurotic characters, Falsettos is high-strung and frenetic. This comes across in its music, which offers shades of Sondheim in its fast-paced, busy style. There is a lot of counterpoint, a lot of musical chatter that borders on panicked, and the end result is a narrative that feels hyper and scattered, with many highs and lows.
Take, for example, the highest high in the show, Trina’s act one tour de force “I’m Breaking Down.” A dream number for any actress due to the comedic and emotional opportunities it presents, Espinosa, a longtime theater favorite, is absolutely terrific as she sings about attempting to cling to her last thread of sanity as her perfectly planned out life crumbles around her. Accented by her chopping fruits and vegetables and even at one point somehow singing beautifully through a mouth full of banana, this is the type of number that tells a complete story on its own, and it is both a musical highlight and a great moment for character development.
But then a few songs later comes “March of the Falsettos,” where the male characters don perplexing, partially neon costumes and perform what can only be described as an avant-garde acid trip that feels befuddling and out of place. This song does nothing to advance the plot, and is so odd it makes you wonder if you might have hallucinated it. Despite containing fewer songs, act two feels far too long, and a surprise AIDS diagnosis comes out of left field, abruptly causing a huge tonal shift that never reverts. Dr. Charlotte and Cordelia only appear in act two, and while this can be logically explained by the fact that this originated as two separate one-acts, their sudden presence feels confusing and forced, and there isn’t much of an opportunity for them to become fully realized characters. If anything, Dr. Cordelia’s profession feels like a convenient necessity given the AIDS storyline.
Particularly in act two, there are ongoing themes about coming of age. Jason is approaching his Bar Mitzvah, which he could not care less about and his Jewish parents could not be more thrilled about. Upon further reflection, one could posit that a “falsetto” voice, which Jason naturally sings in for most of the show, is a symbol of childhood, of not having yet crossed the bridge into adulthood. And it’s not only Jason who has a lot of growing up to do. Marvin is a pouty and confused man who enjoys blaming others for his self-created unhappiness, even going so far as to physically strike Trina across the face at the end of act one solely because she dared to remarry and seek her own happiness after he left her for another man. After this moment, he becomes irredeemable, even as Whizzer, who is more of an attractive enigma than an actual character, tries and partially succeeds at getting him to grow up. And Mendel is the world’s most unprofessional psychiatrist, throwing doctor-patient confidentiality out the window so he can win his crush’s affection, proving he also has some maturing to do. Trina, the most adult character in the show, says it best in “Trina’s Song.” “I’m tired of all the happy men who rule the world, they grow—of that I’m sure, they grow—but don’t mature.”
In addition to transitioning from childhood, whether literally or figuratively, to adulthood, all of the characters also experience a transition in terms of the world they live in. Whether it’s the life and family they always envisioned morphing into something unexpected, or the world literally changing in a very personal way due to a still-mysterious disease, everyone has to face a rather scary wake-up call. The musical ends on an almost shockingly sobering note, with no hint of the lighthearted candor present in the opening number, literally titled “Four Jews in a Room Bitching.”
But the biggest problem is that none of these messages or undertones are quite clear enough, perhaps because there is simply too much going on and none of it is organized in a way that serves the statement the show is trying to make. Also, while the story was quite radical when first written and performed, it cannot help but feel a little dated now, primarily in its depiction of gender roles. This production has a specific, minimalist aesthetic, with the actors moving versatile blocks to create the necessary set pieces. Hints of color and decoration are specifically only added in act two, as the characters finally build more of a healthy home, until that new normal is shaken once again. But issues with the show as written aside, this touring cast is an impressive one. While Espinosa absolutely steals the show, Adams is also a standout, and his character doesn’t get enough moments to let the audience really get to know him. Whizzer’s sweet relationship with Jason is one of the more touching aspects of the story, although it would hit even harder if more of its origins were actually shown. In the end, some great performances and touching moments are at odds with a messy narrative that feels as forced as a bad falsetto, resulting in a real mixed bag that will leave you scratching your head more than it should.
Falsettos runs at Center Theatre Group’s Ahmanson Theatre through May 19th. The running time is 2 hours and 35 minutes, including one intermission. Tickets start at $30 and can be purchased here. Download the TodayTix app to enter for a chance to win tickets for $25. After Los Angeles, the tour will play Chicago, DC, and Charlotte. For more information about those stops, and to purchase tickets, click here.