“Sing For Us All”: FALSETTOS Star Max von Essen Talks Touring, Timeliness and the Darker Side of “Marvin”

“Sing For Us All”: FALSETTOS Star Max von Essen Talks Touring, Timeliness and the Darker Side of “Marvin”

There are some people who you are always happy to see onstage or in a cast list. Be it a full production, a reading, a concert or a gala, certain performers show up and inevitably elevate the entire experience.  This is the story of such a fellow. 

A dashing leading man with a gorgeous tenor voice, Max von Essen has been delighting audiences in New York and across the country for the better part of two decades. 

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Filipino-American Immigrants Take Center Stage in Masterful New Song Cycle; In-Depth Review and a Chat With Creator Paulo K. Tiról

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Hey, people!  Put down the video games, log off Tinder for a minute and pay some attention to what I’m about to tell you.  I’m here to publicly declare that something truly remarkable was recently gifted to the canon of the modern musical, and I need to talk to you about it.  On This Side of the World is, to my mind, the quintessential musical for the Asian American.  Don’t give me any nonsense about Flower Drum Song, please.  You sound foolish when you do that. 

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Catching Up With Krystina Alabado, the Fetch AF New Star of MEAN GIRLS

CAPTION: Erika Henningsen, Krystina Alabado, Taylor Louderman and Kate Rockwell in  Mean Girls  (photo by Joan Marcus)

CAPTION: Erika Henningsen, Krystina Alabado, Taylor Louderman and Kate Rockwell in Mean Girls (photo by Joan Marcus)

  • Matthew Blank

There’s a new star on Broadway, and it’s a familiar face to many theatre fans.  In March, the company of Mean Girls welcomed a brand new “plastic,” with the brilliantly talented Krystina Alabado stepping into the role of “Gretchen Wieners.”

As one of the central trio dictating the flow of high school life in the hit musical, Krystina gets to flex her muscles with a gorgeous solo number, hilarious scene work and a truly epic dance break.

Having gotten to know the Arizona native over the years while working together on press coverage for various projects, I’ve been lucky enough to see her dazzle audiences in shows like American Idiot, Lazarus and Evita.  Memorable to audiences for her captivating presence, inspiring work ethic and incredible voice, Alabado is also well-known for being a genuinely kind person.

She has also made a name for herself with performances in American Psycho, The Mad Ones, Pregnancy Pact and This Ain’t No Disco.

Alabado took a little time to chat about her life, career and current gig!

Where were you born and raised?  When did you first get into performing, and when did you get the sense it was what you wanted to do for a living?

I was born and raised in Phoenix, Arizona, where my whole family still lives! I started performing at a young age, singing with my father who had a Brazilian jazz duo. As for theatre, once I got into middle school, I started musicals and didn’t stop! I loved everything about it and did shows throughout high school and eventually in the community theatre scene in AZ as well.

Jumping right into Mean Girls, talk to me about how the opportunity came about and the audition process.  Had you seen the show or been a fan of the movie?

My audition process was pretty chill actually, I had an initial audition for “Gretchen” in December, and in January I had a callback with our director Casey Nicholaw and music director Mary-Mitchell Campbell. The following day I was in for Tina Fey, Jeff Richmond, and the rest of the creative team to sing and read, and then dance the end of Act 1. It was a quick process and lovely from start to finish. I was definitely a fan of the movie from a young age, so going through this process was really special.

CAPTION: Krystina Alabado, Taylor Louderman, Kate Rockwell, Erika Henningsen and company in  Mean Girls  (photo by Joan Marcus)

CAPTION: Krystina Alabado, Taylor Louderman, Kate Rockwell, Erika Henningsen and company in Mean Girls (photo by Joan Marcus)

This is your first time replacing in a principal role on Broadway. What was that experience like as compared to originating a role?  Were original “Gretchen” Ashley Park and the creative team heavily involved in helping craft the character, or were you given more freedom to find it on your own?

Yes, this is my first time replacing in a principal role – the only other time I replaced was in Green Day’s American Idiot as an ensemble member. The experience as a replacement is very unique, especially compared to creating a role from the ground up – which was the bulk of my work on and off-Broadway over the last four years. I think they are both exciting and challenging in their own ways. For this experience, being put into Mean Girls has been really, really seamless and awesome, all thanks to the incredible creative team.

I worked every day with associate director Casey Hushion, the stage managers, and dance captains to learn and create my own version of the established role of Gretchen. From the moment I stepped into the August Wilson Theatre, they made me feel that I was allowed and encouraged to have ownership of this character in my own way.

Of course, as with any replacement, the material and performance and character has been created by the beautiful talents before you, this one being the unbelievable Ashley Park and of course Lacey Chabert from the movie, but I was encouraged to find my own version!

Tell me about your first night on as Gretchen.  She does a lot of heavy lifting in the show with scene work, songs and choreo.  A great showcase for a versatile performer like you!  What was that first performance like?

My first performance was so special! I had a lot of family and friends in the audience and it was a beautiful day I will never forget! It is always an honor to perform on Broadway and every time I start in a show I get emotional because it feels like this accomplishment after so much hard work where you can say, “Wow – I am doing what I love… what a gift.”

I felt so much gratitude that night. The cast here is the most supportive, loving group of people, so the entire experience of my first show was scary, yes, but so lovely and celebratory in every way thanks to all of the support I had!

And you got to meet Lacey Chabert, the original film Gretchen!  How was that?

Yes, Lacey came to see the show my last week of rehearsals! I have always looked up to her as an actor and have always loved her performance in the movie, so it was really, really cool to get to meet her before I officially started performances. She was so kind and loved the show.

I know it's only been a few weeks, but what have been the most rewarding aspects of the performance?

The thing I love most about this show right now are the people. It is a wonderful place to work and the cast is stellar on and off stage. It has also been fun having such an active audience and fan base. I have had fun connecting with young people from all over at the stage door and on social media about how much this show means to them. It always feels cool when you can see that you reach people all over.

And now, do you have a favorite moment in the show for your character? 

I love playing Gretchen, it is so much fun. My two favorite moments are “What’s Wrong With Me?” and my dance break at the end of Act One in “Fearless.” It is fun to let it all out!

Tell me about your high school experience and how you relate that to the characters or cliques in this show?

I had a bit of a hard time in high school because I moved to a new one at the end of my sophomore year, so I had to start over. Without going too much into it, I was bullied and had a hard time making friends. But I found love and acceptance in the theatre and choir departments at that new school which was a gift. I loved being a part of those programs and that I had a place where I could feel safe. I am such an advocate for theatre and arts in our schools because of this.

While Regina and Karen are pretty strong extremes of strength and passivity, Gretchen seems to fluctuate.  It really adds to the depth and vulnerability of the character, which you capture so beautifully.  Where do you think Gretchen fits into the whole popularity machine?  And how would you describe the person as a whole, now having spent some time with her?

Gretchen is a beautifully vulnerable character. She wants to please, but also all she wants more than anything is to be accepted and valued. It’s been wonderful playing her and getting to know her over the last few months, and my favorite thing about her is that I think we can all relate to how she feels. I know that I have felt that before, wanting to be pleased and fit in – and that is why I think so many people connect with her, especially young people.

As such, now with the benefit of age and wisdom, what would you say are the strongest lessons to be taken from Mean Girls?  How is it most relevant to today's audiences?

That you are enough just the way you are! We can all connect to wanting to be loved and accepted, and in the end, you are enough!

As someone who writes a lot about diversity in theatre, I am curious to know how race has played into your career thus far?  It's not really a factor in this show, aside from one mention of being "exotic," but have you experienced a lot of struggles with typecasting or not having a certain look?  How would you like to see the industry change and develop with respect to diversity in casting?

I am Mexican/Lebanese, born of two immigrant parents, and it has always played into my career and who I am as a person. It is exciting, eleven years into this, to see the industry changing and making strides in inclusivity in casting and storytelling in general. I am proud of my heritage and who I am, and the fact that I am in rooms being considered for more roles, more shows, more opportunities is inspiring and exciting for how we are changing.

What I always say is that more POC stories need to be told, yes, but when change really happens is when POC are telling non-specific stories, just as a person, you know? That is when I think we really have made strides.

What bit of advice would current Krystina have for high school Krystina?

“You are enough!” I think that all of us, including myself now, could use that reminder now and then. I think that in high school I had a hard time because I never trusted that I was good enough or cool enough or nice enough and I always was enough just the way I was, and still am!

What bit of advice do you have for aspiring performers?

Push, push, push – keep your foot on the gas pedal, don’t let up no matter how challenging it becomes. You are the only YOU in NYC and that is your strength. Meditate, be good to yourself, enjoy life here or wherever you are pursuing performing, don’t wait for something to happen, LIVE. This business is the long haul so buckle in and work your butt off.


Catch Mean Girls at the August Wilson Theatre.  For tickets and info, visit meangirlsonbroadway.com

Read more about Krystina at krystinaalabado.com, and follow her on Instagram @krystinaalabado.