All in the Dysfunctional Family: ‘Falsettos,’ an Unlikely, Song-Filled Revival, Succeeds at the Ahmanson

L-R: Eden Espinosa, Thatcher Jacobs and Max von Essen, from the First National Tour of Falsettos, which will play at the Ahmanson Theatre April 16 through May 19, 2019. 

In the landscape of celebrated musicals of a previous generation that are remounted for a tour, Falsettos on its surface seems an odd choice.

Of its nearly unceasing 40 songs (it’s more of an opera than a musical), none contain hummable tunes or easy-to-recall choruses. Instead of an epic tragedy or family-friendly comedy, the story concerns an atypical and self-absorbed family kvetching about unfulfilled lives.

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So what is it about the William Finn-James Lapine collaboration that makes it worthy of a small national tour based on the 2016 revival some 27 years after its Broadway premiere?

The easiest answer is that Finn’s lyrics are the most intricate and clever this side of Stephen Sondheim, and that Falsettos’ story succeeds simultaneously as a highly specific period piece and a timeless view of how families can find a way to stick together and overcome all obstacles.

The revival, which plays through May 19 at Downtown’s Ahmanson Theatre, is directed by Lapine with a stellar seven-member cast. It feels closer to what it was originally — two separate one-act productions written in 1981 and 1990 — than the single show it became in 1992. In the end it remains a touching and often funny foray into a decision by one man that forever changes the lives of his family, his friends and even his therapist.

The man is Marvin (Max von Essen), and the decision is to leave his wife, Trina (Eden Espinosa), and 10-year-old son, Jason (an impressive turn by Thatcher Jacobs), for an attractive man named Whizzer (Nick Adams). The story quickly becomes even more complicated when Marvin’s psychiatrist, Mendel (Nick Blaemire), begins treating and then falls in love with Trina.

The first act, set in 1979, is a pastiche of musical styles, from cabaret to wild comedy to quiet ballads. While there are several gems that keep the tempo and interest from waning, Act One ultimately takes longer than needed to wrap up, and does so with an understated climax.

The pinnacle is “I’m Breaking Down,” easily Falsettos’ funniest offering. It shows Trina barely holding it together while trying to pretend that sharing a meal with her ex-husband and his lover is normal. Espinosa’s performance, which includes hysterically violent chopping of bananas, gets ever-more frenzied as she sings, “It’s me who is the matter/Talking madder than the maddest hatter!/If I repeat one more word, I swear I’ll lose my brain!/Ohhh, what else should I explain?”

The adults act like children, so it makes sense that the most sensible one is the child, Jason, who would rather play chess by himself than make friends. He’s angry with his dad, but there’s a longing, shown with subtle effectiveness by Jacobs, that he wants to love his father.

Act One, as it did long ago, could stand on its own, but the back-to-back stories provide deeper insight into the characters. The second half, set two years later, appears at first to be lighter in tone.

New friends have arrived in “the lesbians who live next door,” Dr. Charlotte (Bryonha Marie Parham) and Cordelia (Audrey Cardwell). At first, the key plot point appears to be whether Jason — who lives with his mom and Mendel — wants to be bar mitzvahed. Then things take a dark turn, beginning with the dramatic number “Something Bad Is Happening.”

Keeping the music and story front and center, Lapine opts for minimal staging. The design is dominated by a series of interconnected blocks that are taken apart and used as furniture and props for dancing. The backdrop is a cardboard-style fake city skyline, which hides the band placed upstage and above the action.

Falsettos would achieve an even more emotional climax by removing a few songs from the first act, and by Lapine pushing the pace harder. Still, Finn’s impressive climactic song, “What Would I Do,” pulls the expansive show back into focus.

Since its creation, the reality of many people, such as these characters, has changed dramatically, so Falsettos falls firmly now into the status of a period piece.

The good news is that, more than a generation after its debut, it remains both musically and topically relevant.

Falsettos runs through May 19 at the Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., (213) 628-2772 or centertheatregroup.org.