Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Chicago

National Tour
Review by John Olson|Season Schedule

The Cast of Falsettos
Photo by Joan Marcus
More than a few Chicago theatre companies had been after performance rights to Falsettos after its short but successful Broadway revival in late 2016. The musical's small cast and minimal set made it perfect for a small-budget storefront production. With each refusal from the licensing agency Samuel French, local storefront companies wondered who might have snagged the rights. Was it one of the big regional non-profit Equity companies? Or one of the commercial Equity theaters? Eventually, it was learned that it was none of the above. The Lincoln Center production would be televised on PBS and later go out on a national tour. That tour launched in March of this year and made it to Chicago this week. Are Chicago audiences better off for it?

With respect and admiration for the Chicago talent pool, it's possible the local community could have matched the strength of this touring cast, but unlikely to have exceeded it. The tour producers Jujamcyn Theaters and NETworks Presentations have assembled a cast who, while not household names to the general public or even to the occasional Broadway patron, are known and admired by the cognoscenti: Max von Essen (Anastasia, An American in Paris) is the confused gay divorcé Marvin, Eden Espinosa (Wicked) plays his ex-wife Trina; Priscilla's Nick Adams is the younger lover Whizzer; Nick Blaemire (Godspell, Cry-Baby and the infamous Glory Days) is psychiatrist Mendel; and Bryonha Marie Parham (Prince of Broadway, The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess) is Dr. Charlotte. Falsettos, being a truly sung-through musical, with the four adult leads handling most of the singing, needs performers who can sing William Finn's complex score and intricate lyrics as well as they can play his in-crisis characters. The music here is exceptionally well-sung across the board, with von Essen being a particular delight. In the ballads "Father to Son" and "What More Can I Say?," he sings with an incredible control and delicacy that has the audience leaning in to hear on the edge of their seats.

Director and co-bookwriter James Lapine has focused more on the emotional stakes of the piece and toned down its comedy a bit. The first act (originally produced as the one-act March of the Falsettos in 1981) is a satirical piece, albeit one with heart. Its characters are more than a little self-absorbed, and Marvin in particular has trouble maintaining his relationships. We have some sympathy for Marvin as a recently out gay man, but he's painted as a rather selfish type who feels the others in his life can't quite live up to his standards. His initial attraction to Whizzer was a physical one, but one that is wearing off. Espinosa's reading of "I'm Breaking Down" is played with more empathy than comedy. She really is breaking down, not merely overwhelmed by all the changes in her life. The mood is lightened by Blaemire's physical comedy and by the appealing performance of Thatcher Jacobs (who alternates with Jonah Mussolino) as Marvin's ten-year-old son Jason.

While Lapine's raising of the stakes in act one at the expense of the comedy robs the piece of some of its original bite and crispness, it may be a better setup for the second act. Written as a sequel to March of the Falsettos, the 1990 musical Falsettoland is both a satisfying follow-up to the earlier musical and a completely different piece. If March of the Falsettos was a wry comment on the self-absorption of some otherwise very fortunate New Yorkers living on one side or the other of Central Park, Falsettoland celebrates love and found families with warmth and gentle humor. Marvin reconciles with Whizzer—with Marvin valuing him even more as Whizzer becomes ill and his physical being—ironically, what was Marvin's original attraction to Whizzer—declines. Falsettoland's new characters—Dr. Charlotte and Cordelia (Audrey Cardwell), the "lesbians next door"—are a sympathetic addition who help to warm up the piece. Since the two one-acts were joined together in 1992 as Falsettos, Falsettoland is rarely produced on its own, probably because it best earns its emotional punch when audiences are more invested in the characters through seeing March of the Falsettos first.

Lapine beefed up this production from its Off-Broadway origins with additional dancing (Spencer Liff's choreography is crisply performed by the cast) and with the simple, yet ingenious set design by David Rockwell. Against a background of a cut-out New York City skyline (which changes tone and mood in the lighting design by Jeff Croiter), Rockwell has a set of differently shaped building blocks that are continually and almost magically reconfigured to form pieces of furniture or building structures. With the cast reassembling these pieces, the building blocks seamlessly take us to the different locations of the story. And with the blocks looking like toys that might be found in a nursery or pre-school, there's a playfulness that reinforces the musical's depiction of its adults as still in many ways childlike.

So, to return to the original question, are Chicago audiences better off with a "big" Broadway-style Falsettos at the expense of a good storefront production? This tour is a beautiful, clever, impeccably cast, and sensitive interpretation of this now classic musical and it communicates the piece's messages with clarity. Lovers of this musical shouldn't miss it, nor should newcomers to the piece. At the same time, Falsettos remains a chamber musical that has a special power when performed up close in an intimate setting. There will be time for more of those. The brief tour ends on June 30th and rights will presumably open up again soon.

Falsettos, through June 9, 2019, at the James M. Nederlander Theatre, 24 W Randolph St., Chicago IL. For tickets, visit For more information on the tour, visit

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