Friday, June 07, 2019

Modern Family: Strong Touring Cast Makes for a Fine ‘Falsettos’ -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Nederlander Theatre, Chicago
Thru June 9

I've seen over 350 different musicals--some many times over--but never, until Wednesday night at the Nederlander, had I seen Falsettos.

So although I wouldn't rank it among my favorite musicals, or quite call the fine current touring production a "must-see"—the run ends Sunday, so locals would be hard-pressed even if I did—I'm delighted that Broadway in Chicago offered it as part of my subscription series.  

I like other shows by the composer/lyricist William Finn—most demonstrably The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee—and I can readily appreciate, with its origins going back 40+ years, how progressive a show Falsettos has always been.

Act Iwhich originated as an 1981 Off-Broadway one-act by Finn and book writer & director (including presently) James Lapine in under the title, March of the Falsettosis set in 1979 and features a successful Jewish New Yorker named Marvin (played here by Max von Essen), who is leaving his wife Trina (Eden Espinosa) for a free-spirited man named Whizzer (Nick Adams).

Photo credit on all: Joan Marcus
Trina remains in the picture—and even romantically pursued by Marvin’s therapist, Mendel (Nick Blaemire)—as does her & Marvin’s 10-year-old son, Jason (Jonah Mussolino at the performance I attended).

Act II—originally 1990’s Off-Broadway Falsettoland—moves things to 1981, adds lesbian neighbors named Cordelia (Audrey Caldwell) and Dr. Charlotte (Bryonha Marie Parham) and sadly weaves in the then-nascent AIDS epidemic.

So clearly, Falsettos—which first ran on Broadway in its present form in 1992, and whose 2016 revival sparked the current national tour—presented a “Modern Family” long before the hit sitcom.

And while, in a recent review of Next to Normal, I credited that show's 2009 Broadway bow for ushering in an age of intimate, domestic, highly dramatic musicals devoid of ensembles and dance routines—from which followed Fun Home and Dear Evan Hansen—I can now appreciate how groundbreaking Falsettos was in that regard as well.

Its story about a family that is broken in a traditional sense but forever bonded by love is quite endearing, and all the more poignant being seen during LGBT Pride Month.

With von Essen, Adams, Espinosa, Blaemire, Parham and even young Mussolino—who shares the role of Jason with Thatcher Jacobs—all bringing solid Broadway credits, this is one of the more impressive touring casts I’ve ever seen, in terms of both pedigree and performance, .

Though many of the songs are brief yet wordy, Finn can write superb showtunes, with “Love is Blind,” “I’m Breaking Down,” “The Games I Play,” “I Never Wanted to Love You,” “The Baseball Game” and “What Would I Do” just some of the highlights.

The score is nicely split between company songs, solo turns and tunes featuring various assemblages of characters. In all cases, the voices are quite impressive.

Chicago Tribune theater critic, Chris Jones, who knows the material far better than I, gave this touring rendition 4 stars (out of 4 in his case) and calls the cast "better than Broadway's."

Yet despite my admiration for what Falsettos is about, its long being ahead of its proverbial “time” and my appreciation for the vast talents of those involved—including Lapine, who scripted and directed three Stephen Sondheim musicals I love (Sunday in the Park with George, Into the Woods, Passion)—my fervor never reached a high-pitched frenzy.

In truth, only a rather gripping conclusion prompted me to award @@@@ (out of 5) rather than 1/2@ less.

This assessment isn’t based on any acute negatives, just a candid gauge of my level of enjoyment and embrace.

Despite many compelling aspects, on an initial viewing Falsettos just didn’t beguile me on par with many musicals I’ve liked much better.

There is delight to be found in its narrative, themes, many songs and touring cast performances, and this is definitely a musical well-meriting familiarity.

But while I love its “love is love” messaging, at this point Falsettos is more a musical I merely liked.

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