Review: Watching Jewish Boys Play At Love

April 29, 2019 | By Bruce R. Feldman

"Falsettos," Ahmanson Theatre, Los Angeles, Apr. 16-May 19, 2019

In Brief: This crackerjack revival of William Finn’s 1992 Broadway production is that rare thing in the theater, a musical that tackles a serious subject in a considered way while managing to be entertaining at the same time.

Bursting with wit and pathos in equal measure, Falsettos is fantasia of sorts, a free form composition that takes a deep dive into the entanglements, heartache, and confusion of loving.

The company of "Falsettos" (Photo: Joan Marcus)

The subject isn’t new. It’s what Finn – who wrote the inventive music and clever lyrics and, with James Lapine, the unconventional book – does with it that makes it feel fresh, compelling, and yes, often very funny for today’s audiences.

Lapine’s fluent staging, Spencer Liff’s imaginative choreography, David Rockwell’s protean set, and a strong cast also contribute to making this production a surefire winner.

Two distinct one-act musicals make up Falsettos. The first, March of the Falsettos, debuted in 1981 and tells the story of Marvin, his wife Trina, their ten-year-old son Jason, Marvin’s lover Whizzer, and Trina’s psychiatrist Mendel.

After the spirited opening number, "Four Jews in a Room Bitching" – which has little to do with the story that follows, but is hilarious (and hilariously staged) nonetheless – Marvin explains his desire for a “tight knit family,” even as he leaves Trina to move in with Whizzer.

Eden Espinosa, Thatcher Jacobs and Max von Essen in "Falsettos" (Photo: Joan Marcus)

The cracks in Marvin and Whizzer’s relationship are soon revealed. Trina has her own problems, as she deals with the dissolution of her marriage. When Jason starts acting out, she takes him to Mendel who becomes infatuated with Trina. They marry. Marvin and Whizzer break up. Marvin and Jason restore their father-son bond.

By the time the second part, Falsettoland, came along nine years later, Finn had more on his mind than the family’s domestic mishegoss.

It’s now a few years later than Act One. The anxiety of planning Jason’s bar mitzvah takes center stage. Mendel suggests a simple party. Trina wants something more elaborate. She hires the lesbian caterer next door who specializes in “nouvelle bar mitzvah cuisine.”

For his part, Jason is ambivalent, and we soon see why.

But first, Finn introduces another comic turn. As the adults cheer on Jason at his little league game, they confess that what they’re really doing is watching Jewish boys who can’t play baseball. Sandy Koufax notwithstanding, "The Baseball Game" is a hoot.

Go Jason! (Photo: Joan Marcus)

The emotional emphasis shifts to Whizzer, hospitalized with a mysterious illness. It’s the beginning of the AIDS crisis, though the group doesn’t know it yet. As Whizzer declines, each of the family members must find a new way forward, without Whizzer, and with each other.

Troubled relationships, the pain of love, the finality of death, the quest for self-acceptance – try though he may, Finn never fully resolves these weighty issues. Who could?

The author does, however, make us think a lot about them, and for two and one-half hours we’re glad that we did.

"Falsettos," Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles, 213.628.2772, www.centertheatregroup.org

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