Family and friends sing through the best and worst of times in William Finn’s queer-themed ’90s musical Falsettos (★★★). James Lapine, who wrote the book with Finn and served as director of the original Broadway production, polished up the show — about a family fractured, then found, after a married father comes out as gay — for a well-received 2016 Broadway revival. The national touring production, ably led by Max von Essen as Marvin, a neurotic New Yorker who has left his wife Trina (Eden Espinosa) and 10-year old son Jason (Jonah Mussolino) for hot-to-trot Whizzer (Nick Adams), feels fresh and timely, even as it drives home timeless themes of kinship, compassion, and redemption.
Redemption doesn’t come easy for Marvin, a character who causes and inflicts a great deal of pain, though not intentionally most of the time. Usually, he’s just selfish — although he can be cruel too, even while the music’s playing. He wants to be a better man, a better dad, a good partner, and the show seems to want that for him. Von Essen’s portrayal is sympathetic without letting Marvin off the hook for some of his shittier behavior. And he sings the part beautifully, making Marvin the warm but flawed center of a makeshift family cobbled together with love and persistence.
The family’s unconventional arrangement also runs on patience, personified in the story by Trina. In the role of a jilted wife and struggling mom who learns to be stronger than she thinks she can be, Espinosa wears that patience like armor. She delivers a suitably distressed, and wryly self-deprecating, take on Trina’s solo “I’m Breaking Down,” while also suggesting that Trina definitely can and will recover from whatever life or her family throws at her.
Trina garners several solos within the show’s sung-through format, as do Whizzer and Jason. They, along with Jason’s psychiatrist, Mendel (Nick Blaemire), are allowed ample space to project their feelings and insights about the family’s delicate situation. But for all the disparate perspectives Falsettos explores, the show’s compelling interest is always Marvin, which seems a limitation for a show about how those many separate shards can hold fast together as something stable and whole.
The second act introduces two major new characters, lesbian couple Dr. Charlotte (Bryonha Marie Parham) and Cordelia (Audrey Cardwell), who add spunk and broaden the scope of the early AIDS era the show depicts. Yet, as welcome and well-performed as they are, they also really just serve Marvin’s story: the Falsettos fantasy that a self-centered man can tear his own house down coming out of the closet, then still be adored as the head of one big, happy family.
Marvin gets to live out his fantasy — but then again, he doesn’t. This cast essays the shifting moods of the story exceptionally well, abetted by a small but formidable orchestra conducted by P. Jason Yarcho. There’s passion and exuberance in von Essen and Adams’ spin on Marvin and Whizzer’s “Thrill of First Love.” That rush gives way to tenderness in Marvin’s poignant “What More Can I Say,” and later, the company hits a home run with their humorous antics singing “The Baseball Game.” David Rockwell’s set, consisting of austere building blocks that the company arranges and rearranges into rooms, provides an inventively malleable space for those shifting emotions.
Finn’s songs shape space through their witty, wordy lyrics — far more than the melodies themselves, which won’t convert any listener who doesn’t already believe in the power of showtunes. These aren’t jazz or pop standards, this is real show music. Luckily, this is an ensemble equipped to hitch nuance and authenticity to those songs, particularly von Essen and Espinosa. Mussolino (who alternates performances in the role of Jason with Thatcher Jacobs) adds a spark of innocence, too. The youngster’s singing sounds pinched in its upper register, but, whether he’s acting the story’s intense father-son scenes, or hoofing through Spencer Liff’s light choreography, his characterization is as assured as any of the adult performers onstage. They all capture the spirit of cooperation that defines this family’s desperate attempt to heal, and to seize one, big happy ending.
Falsettos runs through June 23 in the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater. Tickets are $49 to $139. Call 202-467-4600, or visit www.kennedy-center.org.