'Falsettos' soars in powerful national tour in Chicago
"Falsettos" -- ★ ★ ★ ★
Neurotic New Yorkers sing about their complicated lives in the trailblazing 1992 Broadway musical "Falsettos." A tour of Lincoln Center Theater's acclaimed 2016 revival is now at Chicago's James M. Nederlander Theatre for an all-too-brief stay, and it's full of quirky hilarity and gut-punching drama.
"Falsettos" begins in 1979 and is centered around the self-entitled Marvin (Max von Essen), a selfish antihero who sings about how he wants it all. When Marvin takes up with "pretty boy" lover Whizzer (Nick Adams, who boasts a muscular physique and strong vocals), Marvin's ex-wife, Trina (Eden Espinosa), and brainy son, Jason (Thatcher Jacobs and Jonah Mussolino alternate in the role), are thrown for a loop.
Marvin steers Trina, and then Jason, to his endearing psychiatrist, Mendel (Nick Blaemire), so they can still be "A Tight-Knit Family." But soon the unconventional (and arguably unethical) Mendel gets entangled in everyone's lives -- thankfully for the better.
Act II jumps ahead two years for the comically contentious preparations around Jason's bar mitzvah. The cast crucially expands to include "the lesbians from next door" with Dr. Charlotte (vocal powerhouse Bryonha Marie Parham) and aspiring kosher caterer Cordelia (a comically sweet Audrey Cardwell) to help guide "Falsettos" to its heartbreaking conclusion.
What's key is that original "Falsettos" creators, songwriter William Finn and playwright/director James Lapine, have both masterfully reconsidered and reinvigorated their show (which grew out of a trio of one-act off-Broadway musicals from 1979, 1981 and 1990).
Finn has tweaked and augmented his buzzy and nearly sung-through score with more character depth and storytelling clarity. Meanwhile Lapine's new staging boasts a visual metaphor of "grown-up playtime" that gets waylaid when the life-or-death terror of the AIDS epidemic strikes close to home.
To achieve this, Lapine teams with ingenious set designer David Rockwell, who has created a monolithic gray block onstage at the top of the show. The block then breaks as giant puzzle pieces that get reconfigured like nursery playroom furniture to suggest multiple locations.
Lapine has cast powerhouse Broadway veterans for his touring ensemble. They navigate the full-throated vocal complexities and chatty articulations of Finn's soaring score, while also playing to the subtle dynamics of messy domestic drama (lighting designer Jeff Croiter is a great help to shift focus from character to character).
As the blindsided Trina, Espinosa gets laughs with the comic showstopper "I'm Breaking Down." She also conveys the nuances of the simply titled "Trina's Song" where she bemoans the control that men have on her life (and the world in general), and how she'll find ways to cope.
Blaemire is a gregarious delight as Mendel, especially during his rousing therapy sessions with Jason (played by Thatcher Jacobs on opening night with a haunted thoughtfulness).
As the root cause of so much family trauma, von Essen's Marvin starts out surprisingly low-key. Yet you can argue that Marvin is a wealthy man bursting with too much confidence, so it's particularly shocking as von Essen lashes out when things don't go Marvin's way.
"Falsettos" is a fascinating and emotionally resonant time capsule as it explores the consequences of a gay man's journey away from the closet and takes on a larger cultural significance as the first mainstream musical to directly address the devastation of the AIDS crisis.
In a year marking the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, the musical offers an important reminder of both the advances and setbacks faced by America's LGBTQ community. And it bravely emphasizes that families come in all kinds of different configurations.
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Location: James M. Nederlander Theatre, 24 W. Randolph St., Chicago, (800) 775-2000 or broadwayinchicago.com
Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday (also June 2), 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday (and June 5); through June 9
Running time: About two hours, 35 minutes with intermission
Parking: Pay garages and metered street parking
Rating: Features adult language and sexual situations