Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.
First, the background. Falsettos originated as two one-act musicals written a decade apart but set only two years apart. In 1992, the original works, March of the Falsettos (1981) and Falsettoland (1990), were performed together on Broadway, with some minor tweaking by the authors.
In a series of vignettes, the through-sung musical follows the lives of charming but maddening Marvin (Max von Essen); his former wife Trina (Eden Espinosa), whom he divorced when he finally came out; his puzzled and resentful son Jason (Jonah Mussolino, who alternates with Thatcher Jacobs); his new lover Whizzer (Nick Adams); and his psychiatrist Mendel (Nick Blaemire). The first act is set in 1979 and the second act, set in 1981, adds a lesbian couple, no-nonsense Dr. Charlotte (Bryonha Marie Parham) and aspiring caterer Cordelia (Audrey Cardwell). The characters are Jewish and live in New York City, both of which are necessary elements in the dramatic atmosphere.
One interesting and almost subliminal bit of staging comes from the interplay of Lapine's direction with David Rockwell's set. While the two-dimensional New York City skyline in front of the four-piece "teeny tiny band" includes outlines of recognizable landmarks (including the Empire State Building and the World Trade Center twin towers), the action takes place on what appears at first to be an enormous, solid cube and breaks down into pieces that become chairs, tables, pieces of walls, doorways, and so forth. As the action becomes more immediate and serious in the second act, the actors sometimes knock over the blocks, and the stylized furniture is replaced by a realistic set. (The final bit of staging strikes the audience like a punch in the stomach or an ache in the heart.)
The story arc is about how all the characters have to grow up, from Jason's realization that a bar mitzvah means more than getting presents and which girls to invite, to Dr. Charlotte's growing rage at the "something bad" affecting her gay male patients. At the center is von Essen, who pulls apart the layers of his character to show how Marvin can be, at the same time adorably clever on the surface and annoyingly childish underneath.
While the entire cast is strong, Eden Espinosa nails her manic solo, "I'm Breaking Down," and is very moving in her song of understanding, "Holding to the Ground." Blaemire amuses as a psychologist who doesn't know how to meet his own needs, and Mussolino comes off naturally in a difficult role for a young performer. Adams acts his role capably, but he tends to take his songs too fast, rushing the lyrics and making them difficult to understand.