🎭 A Time It Was, And What a Time It Was | “Falsettos” @ Ahmanson

Falsettos (Ahmanson Theatre)Normally, the progression of how I see major musicals is to see a regional tour first, then see the a major regional production, and then see the intimate theatre version or versions of the show. But 25 years ago I was seeing less theatre and preparing for the birth of my daughter, and so missed Falsettos when it was at the Ahmanson at the Doolittle. My first exposure to the show, instead, was back in 2011, when the YADA/Third Street Theatre mounted a production. About that show, I wrote:

Falsettos” is really two parts of a three part trilogy of one-act musicals with book by William Finn and James Lapine and Music and Lyrics by William Finn (it premiered on Broadway in 1992). The first part of the trilogy (which is not in “Falsettos“) is “In Trousers“, which introduces us to the main character, Marvin, and his discovery that he prefers men to women. The two parts of “Falsettos ” take place after this: Marvin has just divorced his wife, Trina, and has become involved with Whizzer. The first act, “March of the Falsettos“, addresses the desire of Marvin to have a tight-knit family of Marvin, his lover Whizzer, his ex-wife Trina, his son Jason (age 11), and their psychologist (and Trina’s eventual husband), Mendel. This act explores the impact of Marvin’s relationships on those around him, ending up with Trina in a somewhat happy relationship with Mendel, Jason reconciled with his dad, and Marvin and Whizzer split. The second act is the last part of the trilogy, “Falsettoland“. It deals with Jason’s Bar Mitzvah under the Marvin being reconciled with Whizzer, and the shadow of Whizzer coming down with AIDS and eventually dying.

Neither of these are the happiest of subjects, and William Finn’s sung-through music provides opportunity after opportunity to explore all the angst. Unlike “Spelling Bee” or “New Brain“, the music isn’t particularly memorable or uplifting. So overall, we walked out of the musical with an “eh” reaction to the book: it wasn’t quite as incomprehensible as “Adding Machine“, but it wasn’t particularly a wow either. That’s not to say there aren’t some good songs. I’ve always like the opening of both acts: “Four Jews in a Room Bitching”, which opens “March of the Falsettos” and “Welcome to Falsettoland” which opens “Falsettoland“. March (Act I) also contains the wonderful “I’m Breaking Down” (originally in In Trousers): this is a comic delight that Trina sings while making some god-awful baked contraption. The visual gags alone are a delight. Falsettoland” (Act II) has a few good numbers as well, in particular, “Watching Jason (Play Baseball)”, where the characters bemoan how Jewish boys can’t play baseball, and “Everyone Hates Their Parents” where Mendel and Jason sing about how teens always hate their parents as teenagers, but when they are older, they hate them less, and that when they have kids, their kids will hate them. As the father of a teen who is in this stage, all I can say is “how true!”. Lastly, Marvin’s haunting last number, “What Would I Do?”, is just wonderful: it poses the question of what Marvin’s life would be had Whizzer not been it in. It is a suitable capstone to the piece, showing the value of love and friendship.

It is now (looks at watch) 8 years later. Do I still think it is “eh”? If anything, this has become much more of a period piece: we now know how to manage AIDS/HIV, and we can essentially cure or render the disease non-detectable. That’s a good thing: we no longer have the epidemic of men and women dying of this disease. This piece, on the other hand, takes place at the start of the AIDS/HIV era, when we didn’t even know what the disease was — only that men were dying of it. Think of a continuum: this piece capturing the start, with pieces like Rent squarely capturing the middle (recall the “AZT break, referencing the cocktail that had just become common), and pieces like The Prom capturing the modern era where the disease isn’t a consideration. In that continuum, this piece has increased in importance to remind us where we were, and how a disease can rip apart families. It also reminds us that families are who we choose them to be.

But still, this is not a show where you walk out of the theatre cheering. As we drove home, we were listening to an episode of The Ensemblist with Shoshana Bean, and she talked about Hairspray,  and how it ended with all the cast on stage happy and singing. Sister Act, last week, ended similarly. But this show? Let’s just say it ends on the predictable downbeat, with the teeny tiny band. As a result, you still walk out of the theatre a bit “eh”. You enjoyed the show, there were great and wonderful performances, but it left you … solemn. It’s a downbeat book. Not Mack and Mabel downbeat, but still downbeat. But the performances were great.

Before I get into the individual performances, I would like to highlight some of the great moments in this show — because although overall it was down, there were some great ups along the way:

  • I love the opening songs in each act: “Four Jews in a Room Bitching” for Act I (March of the Falsettos), and “Welcome to Falsettoland” for Act II (Falsettoland).
  • “I’m Breaking Down” is still a comic masterpiece, and one of my favorite songs overall.
  • “Everyone Hates His Parents” is an absolute truism, and was wonderfully performed.
  • “The Baseball Game” is just so true, especially as I know Jewish Men that try to play baseball.

Under the direction of James Lapine, and with choreography by Spencer Liff, the production is incredibly creative. The first act has the characters using a large cube of oddly shaped pieces to create the various scene bases, and the dance is less the “step turn step step twist turn” cheorography of a big show with lots of dancers, and more of a choreography through life. Nowhere are both better demonstrated than in “I’m Breaking Down”, where the simple act of making a cake becomes both a dance and an exercise in mental collapse. That is the perfect mess of directors getting the best out of their actors, and cheoreographers making the movement seem natural yet integral to the storytelling.

The performances in this piece were strong. It is hard to tier the first act leads, as they all have relatively equal roles (two characters get added in the second act). But let’s start with the centers of the story: Marvin and his son Jason.

Marvin is in one sense the center of the triangle in the story: He was married to Trina and divorced her; he left her for Whizzer; and his psychiatrist was Mendel, who fell in love with Trina. Playing Marvin, Max Von Essen (⭐FB, FB) captures a man who doesn’t know what he wants in life exceptionally well. He has a lovely voice, which he shows in quite a few numbers, but especially in “What Would I Do?” or his very neurotic numbers like the opening “A Tight Knit Family”.

But Marvin isn’t the only center of the story: there’s also Jason, Marvin’s son. Two actors alternate playing Jason: Thatcher Jacobs and Jonah Mussolino (⭐FB). At our performance, we had Mussolino, who appears to have moved to this tour from the Les Miserables tour (which is across town at the Pantages, if he wants to see his friends). Mussolino was spectacular. His expressions, his playfulness, his singing and performance (for example, in “Everyone Tells Jason to See a Psychiatrist”) in the first act were only surpassed in the second act with his Bar Mitzvah, in “Everyone Hates His Parents”, and “Cancelling the Bar Mitzvah”. Great great performance.

However, if I had to pick a first choice in the performances, it has to be the top of the triangle, Eden Espinosa (⭐FB) as Trina. Just watching her energy, her fact, her embodiment of her character is just a delight. I noted before her performance in “I’m Breaking Down” as a comic masterpiece; but she’s strong in every number she’s in.

Trina is one point of the triangle; another point is Nick Adams (⭐FB, FB)’s Whizzer, the gay man with whom Marvin, Trina’s ex, falls in love in. Adams gets the lucky honor of not surviving the story. I think his character changes the most between the two acts: a bit more aloof and unexplored in the first act; a lot more open and loving in the second act, and with a decidedly stronger relationship with Jason, Marvin’s son. Adams captures those changing characterizations well, and moves from his initial stereotype to a warm person the audience cares about. He sings wonderfully and moves well.

The final point in the triangle was Nick Blaemire (⭐FB, FB) as Mendel, the Psychiatrist. Blaemire, who also wrote the musical Glory Days (which we saw the same year we first saw Falsettos) captures the self-effacing humor of Mendel well, and creates a very relatable  down-to-earth character who does a wonderful job of creating a new family with Trina. He sings wonderfully, is very playful in his movement (look at “Everyone Hates His Parents” or his scenes with Jason), and is quite fun to watch.

In the second act, two additional characters were introduced — the lesbians next door: Dr. Charlotte (Bryonha Marie Parham (⭐FB, FB)) and Cordelia, the Kosher Caterer (Audrey Cardwell (FB)). First and foremost: Ms. Parham has a voice on her — she sings, and sings wonderfully. It was a delight to hear her on all her numbers, in particular, her characterization and expression in “Something Bad is Happening”. Cardwell’s Cordelia gets less of an established personality in the writing, but Cardwell does great with what she gets, pushing her food with style :-).

Standbys and understudies were: Josh Canfield (⭐FB, FB) [who was on Survivor, cool!], Melanie Evans (FB), Megan Loughran (FB), and Darick Pead (FB).

The on-stage “teeny, tiny, band” was conducted by P. Jason Yarcho (FB), and consisted of: P. Jason Yarcho (FB) Conductor, Piano; Max Grossman (FBAssoc. Conductor, Keyboard; Philip Varricchio (FBReeds; Jeremy Lowe (FBDrums/Percussion. Other music credits: Michael Keller (FB) Music Coordinator; Taylor Williams (FB) / Randy Cohen Keyboards Keyboard Programmer; Vadim Feichtner (FBMusic Supervisor; Michael Starobin (FB) Orchestrations.

Lastly, turning to the production and creative credits: David Rockwell (FB)’s set was extremely clever. Starting out as a cube on stage with a backdrop of New York (presumably), the cube came apart to form walls, houses, chairs, desks, and you name it. This was extremely clever, but we replaced by more realistic elements, such as hospital beds and walls, in the second act. Still, the set was an extremely clever conception to execute. It was augmented by Jeff Croiter (FB)’s lighting which mostly worked well, but which also left some characters in the dark or at the edges thereof when they were still the focus of attention. Jennifer Caprio‘s costumes seemed appropriately period, as did Tom Watson‘s hair and wigs. Dan Moses Schreier‘s sound was clear. Rounding out the production credits: Eric Santagata Assoc. Director; Ellenore Scott (⭐FBAssoc. Choreographer; Tara Rubin CSA (FB), Eric Woodall, CSA, and Kaitlin Shaw, CSA Casting; Broadway Booking Office NYC Tour Booking &c; Gregory R. Covert (FBProduction Stage Manager; Amber Dickerson (FB) Stage Manager; Hollace Jeffords (FB) Asst. Stage Manager; Joel T. Herbst Company Manager; Gentry & Associates General Manager.

Falsettos continues at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) through May 19, 2019. Tickets are available through the Center Theatre Group. Discount tickets may be available through Goldstar or through TodayTix.

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The Ahmanson Theatre (FB) has announced their 2019-2020 season, and coming off of their 2018-2019 season, my reaction is much like my reaction to Falsettos: eh. There are only two shows I’m interested in seeing out of the seven: Once on This Island and The Last Ship. Further, the Ahmanson does not understand care and feeding of season patrons (especially the feeding, as we saw at the Pantages subscriber backstage events at the Pantages and Dolby, where local restaurants brought their wares). When I recently had to exchange tickets, I was forced into a higher priced tier because of the paucity of seats available on any date — even weekdays — at my price point. The website was unclear and I needed to call customer service to confirm whether the price was before or after the exchange. Add to that the fact that, when we subscribed originally, they forced us to subscribe on a weeknight (as there were no tickets in the lowest price tier available for subscribers on weekends), and didn’t let us pick the week. Basically, they don’t make me want to go out of the way to be a subscriber even if there is a show or two I don’t like. Good treatment of subscribers is something I’ve seen the Pantages demonstrate. So I think for 2019-2020, it is single tickets. Similarly, there’s only one show in the Taper season of interest: What the Constitution Means to Me. Again, single-tickets. I am, however, considering the Musical Theatre Guide (MTG) season, if it isn’t too expensive: BarnumThe Goodbye GirlIt Shoulda’ Been You, and Kismet.

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Ob. Disclaimer: I am not a trained theatre (or music) critic; I am, however, a regular theatre and music audience member. I’ve been attending live theatre and concerts in Los Angeles since 1972; I’ve been writing up my thoughts on theatre (and the shows I see) since 2004. I do not have theatre training (I’m a computer security specialist), but have learned a lot about theatre over my many years of attending theatre and talking to talented professionals. I pay for all my tickets unless otherwise noted (or I’ll make a donation to the theatre, in lieu of payment). I am not compensated by anyone for doing these writeups in any way, shape, or form. I currently subscribe at 5 Star Theatricals (FB), the Hollywood Pantages (FB), Actors Co-op (FB), and the Ahmanson Theatre (FB). Through my theatre attendance I have made friends with cast, crew, and producers, but I do strive to not let those relationships color my writing (with one exception: when writing up children’s production, I focus on the positive — one gains nothing except bad karma by raking a child over the coals). I believe in telling you about the shows I see to help you form your opinion; it is up to you to determine the weight you give my writeups.

Upcoming Shows:

Tonight brings another tour: Les Miserables at the Hollywood Pantages (FB). The third weekend of May brings The Universe (101) at The Main (FB) in Santa Clarita (we loved it at HFF18), as well as The Christians at Actors Co-op (FB).  May closes with two concerts: Lea Salonga at the Saroya [nee the Valley Performing Arts Center (VPAC)] (FB) and Noel Paul Stookey at McCabes (FB) … and that’s not even the weekend. The last weekend of May will see me at Bronco Billy – The Musical at Skylight Theatre (FB).

June, as always, is reserved for the Hollywood Fringe Festival (FB). If you are unfamilar with Fringe, there are around 380 shows taking place over the month of June, mostly in the stretch of Santa Monica Blvd between 1 bl W of La Brea to 1 bl E of Vine, but all generally in Hollywood. On a first pass, there were lots I was interested in, 30 I could fit on a calendar, but even less that I could afford. Here is my current Fringe schedule as of the date of this writeup. [Here’s my post with all shows of interest — which also shows my most current HFF19 schedule. Note: unlike my normal policy, offers of comps or discounts are entertained, but I have to be able to work them into the schedule with the limitations noted in my HFF19 post]:

In terms of non-Fringe theatre (which, yes, does exist): Currently, the first weekend of June is open, although I’m thinking about Ready Set Yeti Go at Rogue Machine Theatre (FB) [if the publicist contacts me or I see it on Goldstar for Saturday]. Fringe previews start the next week. The end of June also brings Indecent at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB) on June 28, just before the busy last weekend of Fringe.

As for July, it is already filling up. Although the front of the month is currently open, July 20 brings Miss Saigon at the Hollywood Pantages (FB), followed by A Comedy of Errors from Shakespeare by the Sea (FB)/Little Fish Theatre(FB). The last weekend of July brings West Side Story at 5 Star Theatricals (FB). August starts with an alumni Shabbat at camp, and The Play That Goes Wrong at the Ahmanson Theatre (FB).

As always, I’m keeping my eyes open for interesting productions mentioned on sites such as Better-LemonsMusicals in LA@ This StageFootlights, as well as productions I see on GoldstarLA Stage TixPlays411 or that are sent to me by publicists or the venues themselves. Note: Lastly, want to know how to attend lots of live stuff affordably? Take a look at my post on How to attend Live Theatre on a Budget.

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