Review: Falsettos – Is It Really As Good As The Critics Say?
The Broadway revival of William Finn’s and James Lapine’s Falsettos produced by Lincoln Center has been eagerly anticipated. Indeed, the musical that explores the modern definition of “family” is a much-needed tonic in a world where hate and homophobia are rearing their ugly heads at every turn, and where compassion and understanding are derided as “un-American” by so many friends and neighbors who would support a Trump presidency. Yes, the story of Falsettos hails from a different time, an era where fear ruled our thoughts as a mysterious disease began to kill-off predominantly gay men as conservative politicians chose to ignore the death tally in favor of religious retribution exacted by an Old Testament God of spite and smite.
The good news is that Falsettos still holds as much raw power and biting humor as it did back when William Finn wrote the one-act musical that is now Falsettos’ first act, March of the Falsettos, in 1981. Finn has made some lyric changes along the way (some for clarification, some adjusting for age), most of which are not improvements upon his originals. Still, the idea to turn the character of the lesbian caterer Cordelia into a “Shiksa caterer” is a fun choice that adds a new-level of humor to the character as she struggles to create bar mitzvah cuisine. Other than this, most of the changes seem arbitrary, an attempt to make the date-specific Falsettos not appear dated.
Many of the performances in this revival are quite wonderful. Stephanie Block all but steals the show playing the put-upon Trina, a woman whose husband Marvin has left her for another man and whose son is a sarcastic and angry genius. Her rendition of the comedic tour-de-force “I’m Breaking Down” stops Act One as she writhes and twitches while cooking dinner and losing her mind over the state of her life. Her big Act Two solo “Holding to the Ground”, where she reflects on Marvin’s lover Whizzer dying from the aforementioned mysterious illness, is the most gut-wrenching of the show. Andrew Rannells, as Marvin’s sometimes sweetheart and often sparring partner Whizzer, is a revelation in the role. To begin with, the guy is extremely handsome, which makes you understand the carnal lust Marvin has for him. Rannells, however, infuses the character with warmth, compassion, humor, and just the right levels of stereotypical bitchery. His Act Two song “You Gotta Die Sometime” is a breathtaking mixture of all of these attributes, sung by Rannells to glorious effect. Brandon Uranowitz as the wiry Mendel (Marvin’s psychiatrist and Trina’s second husband) evokes memories of Chip Zien in the role twenty-four years ago, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Anthony Rosenthal as Marvin and Trina’s son Jason is that unicorn of the musical stage: a child actor who is neither cloying nor affected. In fact, he holds his own beautifully amongst this talented ensemble, especially effective in his reprise of “The Miracle of Judaism” where he attempts to bargain with God for Whizzer’s life. Tracie Thoms and Betsy Wolfe as the “Lesbians from Next Door” both add some much-appreciated heart and humor to the show’s Act Two, formerly known as Falsettoland.
You will notice that I have avoided mentioning Christian Borle in the lead role of Marvin, the character around which all others remain in constant, frantic orbit. Marvin is such a miserable human being and his behavior so deplorable that he is not an easy character to like. Borle, who is one of Broadway’s finest character actors, doesn’t seem to want to invest too much in his Marvin. He comes across as both detached and, at times, as if he is unsure of his character’s motives. Some of the blame can be put squarely on the shoulders of Director James Lapine who lets this complicated central character get moved to the periphery, but one wants Borle to take the reigns and find the passion and underlying fear in this man and make it tangible. There is one exception: the song “Father to Son”, the heartfelt Act One closer, where Marvin sings to his confused and angry son and tries to feebly apologize for what a shitty father he has been. Borle hits every emotional note perfectly.
James Lapine should never direct the shows he has directed before, especially when they are shows he has written or shaped. The first time around, his work is always clever and fresh. This production of Falsettos, like Lapine’s Broadway revival of Into the Woods, is clunky and overwrought with staging that detracts from the inherent intimacy of the piece. It oversteps the writing in an effort to be inventive. How exciting would it have been to see Falsettos directed by someone who wasn’t so intimately invested in the original production, someone who would see it through fresh eyes? Don’t get me wrong, I am judging this by degree. It is the difference between a good Falsettos and a great Falsettos. Lapine’s use (or rather overuse) of a puzzle-like block that comes apart to create furniture and set pieces in the show feels more like an afterthought than an inventive use of scenery. It distracts more than it organically amazes. I also missed having the “teeny-tiny band” onstage with the actors.
This Broadway revival of Falsettos has so much going for it that it saddens me that it doesn’t get things better than it does. To come this close to perfection and miss it is disappointing. This should have been a slam-dunk, an arresting piece of visceral musical theatre that pushes and pulls at our minds, our funny bones, and most assuredly, our hearts. I wept like a baby at the end (you’d have to be a monster not to), but the journey along the way to that cathartic ending had too many ups and downs of quality considering the material provides the platform for so much more. Still, Falsettos is an important reminder of the imperfect world we live in, where finding and loving our family (whatever that means to you) is paramount to keeping your humanity in tact. It’s the perfect lesson at the perfect