Arts & Culture » Theater

Growing up Falsetto

by Jim Gladstone

Thatcher Jacobs and Max von Essen, from the First National Tour of "Falsettos." Photo: Joan Marcus
Thatcher Jacobs and Max von Essen, from the First National Tour of "Falsettos." Photo: Joan Marcus  

Max von Essen and Thatcher Jacobs play Marvin and Jason, father and son, in "Falsettos," the emotion-wringer of a musical that opens a four-week run at the Golden Gate Theatre next Tuesday night. The original 1992 Broadway production won Tonys for William Finn's music and lyrics and James Lapine's book.

It's the story of one extended family's struggle to make sense of itself in the face of sexual revolution and social change: Jason and his mother, Trina, find their lives upturned when Marvin falls in love with another man. The B.A.R. recently spoke with Jacobs and von Essen in separate phone calls. The actors' experiences with the show illuminate two very different yet harmonious perspectives.

Jacobs, 11, is from Milwaukee, where he's been acting at the nationally recognized First Stage children's theater since age six, after being dazzled by a performance of "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer."

He was raring to go when his agent asked if he'd like to tape a video audition for a role in a national tour. But Jacobs hesitated when he first saw the sheet music for his potential big break. Having largely played roles in the likes of "The Best Christmas Pageant Ever," "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat" and "A Christmas Story," the prospect of singing the jaunty ragtime ditty called "My Father's a Homo" struck him as "kind of weird."

"I didn't really know anything about 'Falsettos' yet," he explained in a recent interview with the B.A.R. "And I mean, you don't call someone a homo. People maybe said that a looong time ago, but it's really inappropriate."

Broadway veteran von Essen, on the other hand, says that after seeing the 2016 revival of "Falsettos," he specifically asked his agent to set him up to audition for the role Marvin should the show announce a tour. It's a role von Essen, 45, says felt especially appropriate for him.

"I'd seen a production when I was in my early 30s," the openly gay actor recalls, "but I just couldn't see myself in it. I don't think I had enough life experience or maturity. And I couldn't imagine myself as a father. But so much has changed since then. It's a reality that I can get married. I can see myself having children now."

Since Jacobs won the role of Jason (he alternates performances with Jonah Mussolino), he's gotten much more context for "Falsettos" and its era (Act I is set in 1979, Act II in 1981, ancient history to a pre-teen today). Elaine Medina, who tutors the boys on the road, has given them research assignments focusing on the social history of the early 1980s, expanding their own perspectives while helping them better understand the world their character lives in. "She had me do research on HIV and AIDS," Jacobs explains. "Nobody even knew what it was yet. That was a very scary time."

"Falsettos" subtly references another scary time that Jacobs is too young to have lived through, but has learned about in school. Set in Manhattan, the show features a backdrop that includes the Twin Towers.

While von Essen marvels at the ways he's seen American society change since the times portrayed in "Falsettos," Jacobs, who casually notes that "there were lots of gay people" at his summer theater camp, is surprised at how things used to be. "Gay people weren't even allowed to be married back then," he says. "That's crazy."

Von Essen discourages theatergoers from approaching "Falsettos" as a gay story, or an AIDS story, or even a late-20th-century period piece.

"It's not like you're watching 'That 70s Show,'" he jokes. "It's a story about human beings and families. Everyone has experienced some of the feelings of love and loss and confusion in this show.

"I've never really played a father before, but on stage I feel just like Thatcher is my son. It's almost as if there's no acting. I hurt when I hurt him. And I'm moved to tears by our relationship."

"Max gets really emotional on stage," says Jacobs. "I sometimes want to comfort him. I really can't say anything, though, because I'm in character."

Falsettos plays the Golden Gate Theatre, March 19-April 14. Tickets from $56: (888) 746-1799, www.shnsf.com

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