Walter Kerr Theatre, NYC, November 6, 2016
Reviewed by Elizabeth Ahlfors for Cabaret Scenes
You gotta have heart and Falsettos has plenty of that. Falsettos originally opened in 1992, a seamless pairing of two one-act musicals by composer/lyricist/librettist William Finn: March of the Falsettos (1981) and Falsettoland (1990). Directing with great success was co-author James Lapine. In the last quarter of the 20th century, when many parts of the country dared not speak the name of the mysterious crisis of AIDS, Falsettos earned two 1992 Tony Awards and ran over 500 performances.
With Lapine directing again, Lincoln Center Theater’s current revival of Falsettos at Broadway’s Walter Kerr Theatre features a crackerjack cast and creative team, some new songs and the irresistible combination of heart, love, laughs and tears. The music sounds better than ever and the nerve centers of AIDS—discrimination and the meaning of family—are still rich. Without updating, the core of the play remains as meaningful today as in the fearful time of the original production, which, incidentally, preceded Angels in America.
Act I opens in 1979, an era of societal changes. Marvin (Christian Borle) has left his wife, Trina (Stephanie J. Block), and their son, Jason (Anthony Rosenthal), for a male lover, Whizzer (Andrew Rannells). Both Marvin and Trina are in therapy with Mendel (Brandon Uranowitz), a psychologist, and they urge their precocious but troubled son, Jason, to see him as well. An awkward situation gets thornier still as Mendel and Trina become attracted to each other and eventually marry.
Act II starts in 1981. The family problems of Act I are exacerbated by the appearance of a virulent new virus spreading through New York’s gay community. We meet Marvin’s next door neighbor, Dr. Charlotte (Tracie Thoms), a lesbian living with Cordelia (Betsy Wolfe). They take their place in the disjointed but loving family of Marvin, Whizzer, Trina and Jason, adding emotional heft to the music and the plot.
The songs, a fanciful and frenetic largely sung-through mix, drive the story and explore the characters with insightful lyrics. The playful opener is a linguistic battle, “Four Jews in a Room Bitching,” with the two couples and Jason costumed in Jennifer Caprio’s Biblical garb, whirling and dancing to Spencer Liff’s choreography. When Jason has a baseball game, his extended family comes to cheer for him, gamely singing “The Baseball Game” (“We’re watching Jewish boys/Who cannot play baseball, play baseball!”).
More personal songs include “The Games I Play,” revealing Whizzer’s quixotic ambivalence when he admits, “Ask me if I love him/It depends on the day.” “You Gotta Die Sometime” shows his grit, and Marvin’s tender, “What More Can I Say?” is affecting as he reveals, “How confused am I by our happiness?/I can’t eat breakfast, I cannot tie my shoe./What more can I do?”
From her perspective, Stephanie J. Block’s power vocals and acting prowess tear through Trina’s desperate showstopper, “I’m Breaking Down.” Block is a stand-out as a warm, empathetic, funny mother and contemporary woman. As Trina’s shrink/husband, Mendel, Uranowitz matches her approachability and humanity. Although the subject of a psychiatrist marrying his patient is verboten, that aside, Mendel serves as an anchor for the boy, Jason, as well as his mother.
Rannells’ Whizzer is a believable charmer, someone everyone likes, especially Marvin’s son, Jason. Borle plays the flawed Marvin, capturing the character’s self-absorption and darkens it with whininess.
With lighting by Jeff Croiter, David Rockwell’s pattern of the Manhattan skyline and the furniture of moveable cubes make an uncluttered and efficient, if not a most attractive setting. Adding the sturdy hospital bed in Act II signals the immutable timetable. Lapine keeps the story moving forward, but the music sometimes feels repetitive and the ending is somewhat abrupt, yet it still delivers its poignant punch.
Even after 25 years, William Finn’s melodic Falsettos continues to explore the many sides of family with its exuberant joy, love and heartbreaking loss.