Dallas — Five characters, each with his or her personal hang-ups and foibles, navigate the closing moments of the sexual revolution in Act One of composer/lyricist/librettist William Finn and librettist James Lapine’s Falsettos; in Act Two, those same characters are joined by two more to find themselves, a couple of years later, in the opening days of the era of Reagan and the First AIDS Crisis. They collide and cavort atop a tight dramatic structure and a beautifully crafted score in an engaging production currently in a weeklong run at Winspear Opera House on the AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Broadway Series. Falsettos made its first big splash as a Broadway hit in 1992, and scored a successful revival in 2016, which became the basis of this current touring production. The Dallas stint is the first full tour stop on an eight-city tour, which had initial tech performances in Fayetteville, Arkansas, last week.
It’s impossible to say which of the characters is at the center of this emotional vortex; certainly, each has a completely different take on a world in which the ground keeps moving beneath them, and traditional assumptions have evaporated. Marvin, a middle-aged gay man, is the connecting point for his ex-wife Trina, his 10-year-old son Jason, his fashionista lover Whizzer, and his psychiatrist Mendel—but each of these characters arrives at a different way of relating to all of the others, each of which is profoundly meaningful. Indeed, the ways in which they all eventually connect, forgive, and learn to love Whizzer, who is initially the least likeable of all the characters, may well be the underlying pivot of the musical.
These obviously different characters share the common ground of being upper-middle-class and Jewish in New York circa 1980; the backdrop includes a subtle image of the World Trade Center, reminding the viewer that it is a different era from our own, but in many ways not so different after all. In the opening scene, the four male characters arrive in Biblical costume for an old-fashioned song-and-dance number with a not-so-old-fashioned theme: “Four Jewish Guys Bitching.” Though Trina’s situation has its own resonance, this presents us with the concept of four males—a middle-aged straight guy, a middle-aged gay guy, a young gay man, and an adolescent boy—facing the whirlwind of the sexual revolution. (They appear together again in garish costume for a dream sequence, all singing in squeaking high falsetto in “March of the Falsettos,” also the title of one of two one-act musicals that morphed into Falsettos; the other was Falsettoland.)
The game of chess, with its inherent complications and conflicts, provides a central metaphor in Act One, while various physical activities (baseball, racquetball, and group aerobics) play a similar role in Act Two. The final death-bed scene strategy is as old as Uncle Tom’s Cabin and La traviata, but it still works in this case; as in La bohème, the demise of one character creates in all the others a moment of apotheosis and self-realization.
William Finn’s score is both traditional and fresh, and in keeping with the Broadway trends of the 1980s and ‘90s, it’s almost entirely sung, with the sung expository dialogue melding seamlessly into the perpetual outpouring of delightful, gemlike songs. A small ensemble of piano with a single reed player and percussion, placed high up behind the backdrop and conducted from the piano by P. Jason Yarcho, clipped along nicely on Tuesday night; balance and general sound was the best this listener has heard from a touring company in the Winspear Opera House, with almost all of the words easily understood—which is not always the case with Broadway musicals at this venue. Within the music itself, subtle shifts of meter give extra energy to the appealing tunes.
Child actor Thatcher Jacobs maneuvers with impressive and energetic perfection in the hugely demanding role of the boy Jason (he alternates in the role with Jim Kaplan); as his mother Trina, Eden Espinosa, with a dusky mezzo-soprano, earns the spotlight with her early-on mad scene, “I’m Breaking Down.” Nick Blaemire as Mendel and Max Von Essen as Marvin nicely portray, respectively, the straight and gay sides of middle-aged male vulnerability. Audrey Cardwell arrives in Act Two as Marvin’s perky caterer neighbor Cordelia, who has invented a “nouvelle kosher cuisine” that no one wants; as Dr. Charlotte, Cordelia’s lover and Whizzer’s physician, Bryonha Marie Parham delivers one of the most intriguing moments of the show, when she gently informs Marvin that the as-yet-unnamed syndrome that is afflicting Whizzer is contagious, and spreads from man to man.
The role of Whizzer is in many ways the most intriguing and textured in the show; Nick Adams shows off a beautiful voice and joins Von Essen for one of the all-time great Broadway love duets (which happens to be for two men), “What Would I Do?”
David Rockwell’s sets, centered on a large block of interlocking foam rubber pieces—think a more geometric, large-scale Jenga that deconstructs to a variety of set pieces and props—backed up by the New York skyline of 1980, provide an efficient evocation of the era, as do Jennifer Caprio’s authentic early-‘80s costumes. Author Lapine directs the quickly paced show, with Spencer Liff providing straightforward choreography that effectively captures the complexity of the interaction of characters.
Many of the specific dilemmas of the era of Falsettos persist today; while the human longing for connection and love in its many forms and many complications, as depicted so beautifully in Falsettos, is universal.
» Read our interview with Eden Espinosa here