Max von Essen, left, as Marvin and Nick Adams as Whizzer in “Falsettos” at the Kennedy Center. (Joan Marcus)
Theater critic

It is impossible to leave the musical “Falsettos” unmoved, even if the path to its irresistible ending is peculiar and confounding. The style of composer-lyricist William Finn’s portrait of fast-changing gay life between 1979 and 1981 has always been nearly too cute for its own good, with bouncy numbers often seeming as anxious to please audiences as to dramatize the anxieties of its characters.

But it will break you down, to borrow a phrase from Trina, the addled wife of a man named Marvin who leaves her for a handsome fellow named Whizzer. Finn wrote three one-acts in the late 1970s and 1980s, known as the “Marvin Trilogy,” and what he eventually stitched together from the last two shows as “Falsettos” with book writer and director James Lapine strains a bit at the seams. Yet this intimate, seven-character chronicle is a bit of a landmark, and it certainly captured its liberating, dawn-of-AIDS era as an unnerving time.

At the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater, the touring production of Lapine’s 2016 Broadway revival — a Lincoln Center Theater production — is as up and down as the material. The first act feels bland, oddly underpowered by a “teeny, tiny band,” as a lyric puts it, that practically whispers when the score wants comic color (which may explain why the singing sometimes hunts for the right pitch). The opening number “Four Jews in a Room Bitching” sets a high jinks-friendly tone, and even though Finn’s bright lyrics keep peppering your ear, the performances feel weirdly held back.

The silky-voiced Max von Essen is nearly inscrutable as Marvin, and while that seems partly baked into the character — Marvin’s palette runs from maddeningly vague to outright jerk who resents the wife he abandoned when she takes up with their shrink, Mendel — the general underplaying is out of key with Finn’s high-relief style. The performances wake up whenever the characters jab one other with even a pinprick of sarcasm.

Still, gorgeous tunes break through Finn’s cascade of songs, which deepen considerably at the outset of the second act. Not that we’re done with comedy: The wound-up number called “The Baseball Game” gets the biggest laughs of the night as Marvin flirts with Whizzer (a dashing Nick Adams), who coaches young Jason (a pitch-perfect Thatcher Jacobs, alternating at some performances with Jonah Mussolino). The kvetching from the stands is a riot.


Thatcher Jacobs, left, as Jason and Nick Blaemire as Mendel in “Falsettos” at the Kennedy Center. (Joan Marcus)

Eden Espinosa makes a ­put-upon Trina, Nick Blaemire percolates with off-kilter charm as Mendel, and the wisdom of young Jason is one of the show’s chief delights. (Finn would go on to write the songs for “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee.”) AIDS looms, though, and even before that, patterns emerge. As characters sing about growing up, actors rearrange the giant toy blocks of David Rockwell’s ingenious set, building living rooms and kitchens against the cutout Manhattan skyline. Making a home and a family is the quest, and everything is always more fragile than we think.

Finn and Lapine don’t always find words; the lesbians next door perpetually introduce themselves as “the lesbians next door,” and “Something bad is happening” is all that Dr. Charlotte (an excellent Bryonha Marie Parham) can sing about the mystery disease beginning to plague men. Even so, songs such as the grim circus waltz “You Gotta Die Sometime” and the ballad “What Would I Do?” wipe away clutter and unlock your tear ducts. The jangly, unguarded style finally adds up, and the frantic confusion makes sense.

Falsettos, music and lyrics by William Finn, book by William Finn and James Lapine. Directed by James Lapine. With Audrey Cardwell. Choreography, Spencer Liff; music supervisor, Vadim Feichtner; costumes, Jennifer Caprio; lights, Jeff Croiter; sound, Dan Moses Schreier. About two hours and 40 minutes. Through June 23 at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater. $49-$139. 202-467-4600 or kennedy-center.org.