Ah, love. Ecclesiastes famously tells us it is patient and kind and all that other noble stuff. Ecclesiastes obviously was never in love.
As William Finn and James Lapine show with graphic intricacy in the groundbreaking 1992 chamber musical “Falsettos,” love is actually confusing, messy, mortifying, frustrating and rage-inducing. It certainly doesn’t (per the Bible) “rejoice in the truth.”
At least not in the first act, when Trina learns that her husband Marvin is gay and in love with a man named Whizzer.
Then, there’s the fact that love can kill you. Finn (music, lyrics, book) and Lapine (book) set “Falsettos” in 1979 and 1981, the early years of the AIDs pandemic. This is a romance, but it’s no sugarcoated fairy tale.
Lapine directs the “Falsettos” tour that follows his Tony-winning 2016 Broadway revival. In doing so, he has gifted another generation of audiences with a story that tackles huge, everlasting themes through the lives of contemporary, idiosyncratic individuals.
“Falsettos” was borne of three earlier one-acts — “In Trousers,” “Falsettoland” and “March of the Falsettos,” shows that featured gay characters who (for once) weren’t campy sidekicks or sassy best friends.
In “Falsettos,” Trina (Eden Espinosa) performs a monumental, emotionally volatile showstopper while doing mundane tasks like dicing vegetables. Cordelia (Audrey Cardwell) and Dr. Charlotte (Bryonha Marie Parham) are literally the lesbians next door. Marvin (Max von Essen) dresses in dad jeans. Whizzer (Nick Adams) is fashion-forward but in a way that’s more “Company” than “Priscilla Queen of the Desert.”
Still, for all its middle-class normalness, the world of Marvin, Whizzer, Trina et al. is as dramatic and heart-wrenching as that of Dot and Georges or Valjean and Javert. “Falsettos” is simultaneously epic and rooted in everyday mundanities.
It is also timeless, despite the specificity of its setting. When “Falsettos” condemns the Reagan administration’s tragic indifference to a deadly plague (Nancy Reagan serves as a literal punching bag), it could just as easily be calling out the dangerous impact of climate-change deniers. Dr. Charlotte’s “Something Bad Is Happening” is as much warning as history. “Trina’s Song” is about her ex-husband and Whizzer, but Trina’s rage about powerful men who are “silly, childish jerks” could easily be about a 21st century politics.
The plot launches as Trina and Marvin’s marriage dissolves. The “tightknit family” of Jewish New Yorkers hits the rocks when Trina discovers Marvin and Whizzer being non-platonic in the den. Trina stumbles, weeps and laughs her way into a new life with Marvin’s psychiatrist Mendel (Nick Blaemire). Meanwhile, Trina and Marvin’s son Jason (Thatcher Jacobs on opening night, Jonah Mussolino at some performances) is more emotionally mature than the adults spinning in his orbit.
“Falsettos” has no big dance numbers, no big orchestra and zero spectacle. But with conductor P. Jason Yarcho’s wonderful “teeny tiny band” perched above the stage, the cast delivers one moving number after another. Among them: Trina’s all-too familiar “I’m Breaking Down,” a showstopper about knives and bananas and going bananas with knives. Sparks fly between Adams and von Essen in “Love is Blind,” which drips with eroticism as the men veer between wanting each other and wanting to kill each other.
Physically and emotionally, Whizzer has the most arduous character arc. He’s gleaming with taunting, effortless sex appeal in the first act, seriously diminished in the second act. Adams captures both, that early vitality still stubbornly flickering even under a pallor of illness and grief. The young Jacobs is also solid, proving his mettle with “Jason’s Therapy” and creating a character who is precocious without being cutesy, wry without seeming prematurely cynical.
Parham has the gravitas of a wise doctor and the warmth of a woman in love. Cardwell’s Cordelia is all sunshine and mild obsession, a caterer endlessly fretting over canapes and whether her career is frivolous compared to that of her doctor wife. Blaemir’s Dr. Mendel finds truth in the tedium of psychiatry’s 50-minute hours and cavalcades of neurotic “Yuppie pagans.”
Jennifer Caprio’s costumes are period-perfect. The aerobics attire (“Trina works it out!”) is a regular Jane Fonda Fitness flashback. Whizzer’s handball garb subtly, unmistakably shows the progression of a tragedy.
The production plays out on set designer David Rockwell’s minimalist space, on which the cast uses giant, stackable blocks to create everything from a rickety castle to a shrink’s sofa. A silhouette of Manhattan — World Trade Towers intact — forms an elegant backdrop that serves as a subtle reminder of loss amid love.
Catey Sullivan is a freelance writer.