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Falsettos

The tear-stained faces of the audience members made it clear that this musical still resonates deeply.

Christian Borle and Andrew Rannells in a scene from “Falsettos” (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

Christian Borle and Andrew Rannells in a scene from “Falsettos” (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

Joel Benjamin

Joel Benjamin, Critic

Would a twenty-five year old musical about the AIDS epidemic still resonate today? Surely, the noisy nightmare of the “plague” has softened into mere white noise—the less said about it the better.

The tear stained faces of the audience members as the cast of the new Falsettos took its curtain calls at the Walter Kerr Theatre put any doubts to rest. This musical is still powerful on many levels and to several generations. To those of us who lived through the height of the hysteria, Falsettos brings back many moving images and to those who are too young, there is a tragically truncated love affair to contend with.

In 1992, William Finn (music and lyrics) and James Lapine (co-book author, with Finn) combined two earlier one-act off-Broadway shows, March of the Falsettos (1981) and Falsettoland (1990) into a single two-act musical, Falsettos, a natural pairing, the first, a comedy/drama of domestic insolvency and the second about the fate of this extended family.

The plot at its simplest: upper middle-class Marvin has left his wife, Trina for the handsome Whizzer. Marvin and Trina work with the shrink Mendel hoping to keep from traumatizing their son Jason who actually very much likes Whizzer and is far from traumatized. Trina’s well-planned, Jewish, middle-class life has gone askew and Mendel not only helps her but falls in love with her, wooing her until he gets her. An uneasy peace descends on the Marvin-Whizzer-Trina-Mendel-Jason ménage.

Anthony Rosenthal, Betsy Wolfe, Stephanie J. Block, Tracie Thoms, Brandon Uranowitz, Christian Borle and Andrew Rannells in a scene from “Falsettos” (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

Anthony Rosenthal, Betsy Wolfe, Stephanie J. Block, Tracie Thoms, Brandon Uranowitz, Christian Borle and Andrew Rannells in a scene from “Falsettos” (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

In part two, it’s time to plan Jason’s bar mitzvah. The two lesbians next door, Dr. Charlotte and Cordelia have integrated themselves into the extended family of Marvin et al, which works well since Cordelia is a chef who wants to cater the bar mitzvah and Charlotte is the physician to whom Marvin turns when Whizzer falls suddenly and mysteriously ill. Although the Whizzer’s pathology is never explicitly named, it is clear that he has contracted HIV-AIDS.

Jason, extraordinarily fond of Whizzer whose support complements his dad’s, provides a lovely, inventive solution to the quandary of where and when to hold his bar mitzvah, turning his transformation into manhood into a joyous ritual that brings all the emotional threads of the story together in a heartbreaking ending.

Throughout it all, Finn’s songs illuminate the joys, loves, hates, passions and complaints of this delightful cast of characters. From the opening “Four Jews in a Room Bitching” to the exquisitely moving final song, “What Would I Do?,” the score is full of melody and witty wordplay. There are songs about Mendel’s sessions (“Marvin at the Psychiatrist, a Three Part Mini-Opera” and “Jason’s Therapy”), a marriage proposal, a nervous breakdown song (“Trina’s Song”), a hilarious song about Jason’s little league (“The Baseball Game”), an ominous song (“Something Bad is Happening”) and several love songs (“I Never Wanted to Love You,” “Making a Home,” “Unlikely Lovers,” “The Games I Play” and the previously mentioned “What Would I Do?”).

Lapine’s direction keeps what could have been a hyperactive, jumpy narrative running smoothly.

Christian Borle (Something Rotten) shows a previously untapped emotional depth as Marvin. Andrew Rannells (Book of Mormon), similarly, makes the somewhat underwritten Whizzer a delight. He makes it clear why Marvin desired him and Jason adored him.

Stephanie J. Block and Brandon Uranowitz in a scene from “Falsettos” (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

Stephanie J. Block and Brandon Uranowitz in a scene from “Falsettos” (Photo credit: Joan Marcus)

As Mendel, Brandon Uranowitz, so terrific in An American in Paris, does befuddlement gracefully as he romanced the absolutely wonderful Stephanie J. Block (The Mystery of Edwin Drood) whose Trina is touching and thrilling in equal measure. Totally brilliant is Anthony Rosenthal as Jason, a totally unaffected child actor who nearly steals the show several times.

As the lesbians next door, Tracie Thoms (Stick Fly) made Dr. Charlotte a character of substance and heart while Betsy Wolfe (Bullets over Broadway) as Cordelia was likeable, if a bit cartoony.

Jennifer Caprio’s costumes are colorful evocations of the eighties and Jeff Croiter’s lighting creates many moods. Spencer Liff’s minimal choreographic contributions are more stylized walking than actual dance steps.

The only off-putting elements in this superb production are the sets by David Rockwell. A large tan cube in the middle of the stage is picked apart to form pieces of furniture and otherwise define places. This works. However, Mr. Rockwell’s backdrop, hung on three sides, consists of several layers of cutouts that move up and down to form cityscape images which are overwhelming, taking the attention away from the central action.

This Falsettos makes a case for its inclusion in the classic musical canon.

Falsettos (through January 8, 2017)
Lincoln Center Theater
Walter Kerr Theatre, 219 West 48th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 800-982-2787 or visit http://www.Ticketmaster.com or http://www.lct.org
Running time: two hours and 25 minutes including one intermission

Joel Benjamin
About Joel Benjamin (205 Articles)
JOEL BENJAMIN was a child performer on Broadway and danced with leading modern dance and ballet companies. Joel has been attending theater, ballet and opera performances ever since childhood, becoming quite opinionated over the years. He was the founder and artistic director of the American Chamber Ballet and subsequently was massage therapist to the stars before becoming a reviewer and memoirist. He is a member of the Outer Critics Circle.

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