Smart, sassy, entertaining, funny, heart wrenching. The adjectives do not exactly capture the whole of Falsettos, the Lincoln Center production currently at the Ahmanson. Falsettos is an amalgamation of two, one act, musical plays: “March of the Falsettos” written in 1981, but set in 1979, when gays were beginning to taste social freedom in a big way; and “Falsettoland”, written in 1990, but set in 1981 when Aids was a yet unnamed scourge of the gay community. Time has not dimmed the wit or the tragedy. The music is fresh and the libretto is tight.
Your attention is caught from the get-go. The opening number, “Four Jews in a room Bitching,” is energetic and hilarious. It sets the stage; this is a musical where the story is complex, though told only in song. No group should feel safe. No safe places, no trigger warnings, just humor, energy, and music. It is all music. There is no spoken dialogue yet the story is told clearly and bitingly.
Marvin (Max von Essen) and Trina (Eden Espinosa) are recently divorced. They have an 11 year-old son, Jason (played by Thatcher Jacobs opening night, by Jonah Mussolino in alternating performances). Marvin has a new boyfriend, Whizzer (Nick Adams) – maybe more properly described as a boy toy. It is New York, of course he also has a Jewish psychiatrist, Mendel (Nick Blaemire) whom Marvin thinks everyone should see. Marvin just wants to be “A Tight Knit Family,” with Whizzer and Mendel neatly folded in. What could possibly go wrong? Jason madly plays chess with himself, refusing to engage with any of the grownups. He worries that his father’s homosexuality will curse him too. Marvin and Whizzer’s relationship’s greatest strength is make-up sex. Mendel falls in love with Trina who ends up with the show-stopping number “I’m Breaking Down.” Whew, there is a lot going on. Trina ends up with Mendel; Marvin breaks up with Whizzer; and the one who can see through the mess is young Jason. Thatcher Jacobs, the opening night Jason, captures the wisdom and the rebellion of the bright child whose answer is to be stubborn and surly. He shrugs, he has insight, but, hey, he is not a shrink. Precocious as he is he is a kid.
Act II: two years have passed; the pace slows; the mood gradually darkens. Whizzer has moved out; Trina is married to Marvin. Eleven plus two equals thirteen and it is time for Jason’s Bar Mitzvah. Oy, the celebration is a chance for Trina and Marvin to act like a couple. They bicker. Jason is a kid. He acts out. Mendel gives the only advice that sounds vaguely like a shrink in “Everyone Hates His Parents.”
Cordella (Audrey Cardwell) and Dr. Charlotte (Bryonha Marie Parham) are a lesbian couple who live down the hall from Marvin. Cordella, is a caterer. She is preoccupied with with creating “Nouvelle Bar Mitzvah Food.” We hear the first foreshadowing of tragedy in a scene when Dr. Charlotte comes home from a long day at the hospital where “Something Bad is Happening.” Young men are dying on a daily basis. There is no explanation. If you were around in the early eighties it takes little to conjure up where the story is going. Though never without humor, the story gradually darkens. By the end dry eyes are rare in the audience.
As entertained as I was, in the car on the way home it struck me, “Falsettos” has more the complexity of an opera, than of a musical comedy. “Falsettos” manages to cover a dazzling range of issues. In the skilled hands of William Finn and James Lapine the libretto sparkles. It is rare to spend an evening in the theater as thoroughly satisfying as this.