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Theatre in Review: Falsettos (Lincoln Center Theater Company at Walter Kerr Theatre)

Christian Borle, Anthony Rosenthal, Stephanie J. Block. Photo: Joan Marcus

What was I thinking? When it was first announced that Lincoln Center Theater was producing a revival of Falsettos, I thought, Surely it won't have the same impact it had in 1992. This tale of a man, his male lover, and their extended family struggling with changing sexual mores and, later, the AIDS epidemic, would surely have a slightly musty whiff of history attached it, right? We've moved on, haven't we?

This laughable delusion was thoroughly debunked the other night at the Walter Kerr as the audience's robust laughter slowly gave way to a sea of sniffles, including my own. One of the most original and heart-piercing late-20th-century musicals, Falsettos remains a marvel of social observation and humane comedy -- and the second act packs a knockout punch that very few musicals can match.

Falsettos is really two one-act musicals, March of the Falsettos and Falsettoland, written in 1979 and 1990, respectively, and assembled in 1992 to make a full-length evening. Structured more like an oratorio than a book show or through-composed musical, it tracks the emotional havoc caused when Marvin, a married Jewish New Yorker and father of one, leaves his family to live with another man. William Finn, who wrote the score and lyrics -- and one of the spikiest voices in modern musical theatre -- makes clear that prisoners won't be taken in his first number, "Four Jews in a Room Bitching," which introduces Marvin; his pretty-boy lover, Whizzer; Mendel, Marvin's mensch of a psychiatrist; and Jason, Marvin's understandably bewildered son.

This tangle of self-aggrandizing personalities and loose nerve endings could quickly prove grating, but, in number after number, Finn both spoofs and sympathizes with his characters as they stumble around, trying to find their equilibrium in a world where the rules of marriage and family have suddenly been rewritten. As Jason, at age ten already the most mordant member of the crew, notes, "My father's a homo/My mother's not thrilled at all." But it's a rough road for everybody: Marvin tries to make Whizzer into a kind of wife, but the younger man refuses to meet his lover at the end of the day with dinner in the oven and his shirt unbuttoned. Marvin also insists on everyone getting along, singing, "I want a tight-knit family/I want a group that harmonizes/I want my wife and kid and friend/To pretend/Time will mend/Our pain." (It's a measure of Marvin's discomfort with his choices that he constantly refers to Whizzer as his "friend.") Then again, he's not at all happy when his wife, Trina, first consults Mendel, then begins dating him. Trina, living in a state of shock not really eased when she starts sleeping with her husband's analyst, brings the first act to a riotous halt with "I'm Breaking Down," which depicts how the stress of these constantly changing arrangements has pushed her to the edge.

Seen at a distance of nearly a quarter of a century, what's most striking is how the first act, which once seemed a brittle comedy of manners, has its share of soulful moments. "The Games" captures Whizzer's ambivalence about his affair with Marvin. ("It hurts not to love him/It hurts when love fades/It's hard when part of him/Is off playing fam'ly charades.") "I Never Wanted to Love You" is a stunning quartet in which Trina and Mendel, and Jason and Whizzer, work through relationships they never saw coming. The act ends on a surprisingly moving note when Marvin, left by Whizzer, makes his amends to Jason. Set in 1979, the first act is an accurate snapshot of a time when "gay liberation" was still in the lexicon and pop psychologists talked about the virtue of selfishness. Watching Marvin and company, shorn of the certainties on which they were raised, chasing an elusive, often ill-defined happiness, it's impossible not to be amused -- and moved -- by their foolishness and, oddly, their bravery.

That bravery will be sorely tested in Act II, originally called Falsettoland. It's now 1982 and everyone has settled into an arrangement of sorts. Marvin is still alone, but Trina and Mendel are making a go of it, and among their friends are "the lesbians from next door" -- Charlotte, a doctor, and Cordelia, a caterer busily developing a new line of "nouvelle bar mitzvah cuisine." The latter fact is important, as Jason is busy preparing for his upcoming ceremony. When Whizzer returns and he and Marvin settle down, everyone seems finally poised to enjoy some happiness. (Even Trina has to admit to retaining a certain affection for Whizzer.) But, as Charlotte notes, "something bad is happening" in the form of a nameless disease striking down young gay men. ("Bachelors arrive sick and frightened/They leave weeks later unenlightened.") The disease hits home when Whizzer collapses during a game of squash; suddenly, all of them must pull together to see Jason through his bar mitzvah and Whizzer to his end.

The turning point is "Holding to the Ground," Trina's Act II ballad, in which she realizes for the first time how deeply bound all of them are, especially in the face of frightening new developments ("Holding the ground/As the ground keeps shifting/Trying to keep sane/As the rules keep changing/Keeping up my head/As my heart falls out of sight"). It all comes together with an intimate, impromptu bar mitzvah ceremony in Whizzer's hospital room, an extraordinary expression of love and family that, by all reports, routinely leaves the audience thoroughly wiped out. (This was certainly the case at the performance I attended.)

James Lapine, who co-wrote the book with Finn, once again directs, as has been the case with all of the show's New York productions, and he has assembled a top-flight cast to get inside the heads of these complex, contradictory, often self-defeating characters. Christian Borle deftly captures the bundle of contradictions that is Marvin: selfish, self-aware, worried about everyone else yet not above bullying them, too. He brings a true tenderness to "What More Can I Say," sung during an idyllic period with Whizzer, and "Father to Son," in which he reconciles with Jason. Andrew Rannells nails both Whizzer's self-involvement and blunt honesty; he is in especially good voice here, in the lacerating "The Games I Play" and in "You've Gotta Die Sometime," in which, now gravely ill, he faces the inevitable. He and Borle devastate in the climactic duet, "What Would I Do," in which Marvin and the now-passed Whizzer look back at their troubled, yet essential, love affair.

Stephanie J. Block brings her stunning voice and crack comic timing to the role of Trina, turning "I'm Breaking Down" into a hilarious mini-psychodrama, chopping vegetables with undisguised fury and ending with a pose that recalls Mrs. Lovett at the end of the first act of Sweeney Todd. (Spencer Liff's musical staging is well-considered here and throughout the show.) Block casts an entirely different spell in "Holding to the Ground," describing how her heart is opening up, almost against her will. This is easily her finest performance yet. Brandon Uranowitz is a warm and likeable Mendel; I was especially taken with the little hand gesture he makes, almost like a magician, when advising his patients. He is all but irresistible in "Everyone Hates Their Parents," in which he clues Jason in to a certain well-known fact of life. Tracie Thoms and Betsy Wolfe are delightful presences as Charlotte and Cordelia, especially when joining Borle and Rannells for the score's most gorgeous number, "Unlikely Lovers." Anthony Rosenthal is fine as young Jason, casting a cold eye on his universe of erring adults and rocking out while trying to learn his Torah portion.

Falsettos has always called for a spare production design, which it gets here, although David Rockwell's scenery has its oddities. At stage center is a cube that pulls apart, revealing a series of building blocks and geometric shapes that can be used to create a variety of locations. This is a clever idea, alluding as it does to the generally low level of maturity on stage, and allowing for fast, seamless transitions. However, the action is surrounded on three sides by a series of layered drops that move up and down to create a number of skyline looks; this is all right as far as it goes, but the pieces tend to move arbitrarily, creating something of a distraction. At the top of Act II, the layers are flown out, revealing a surround of white fabric that looks surprisingly wrinkled; as the act unfolds, they fly back in, for reasons that I could never divine. In any case, Jeff Croiter's lighting paces many of the numbers with pastel effects, creating starker looks as needed; he also employs a UV look for the number "March of the Falsettos." Jennifer Caprio's costumes manage to evoke the period without being offputtingly ugly; no small achievement, given the general quality of Reagan-era fashions. Dan Moses Schreier's excellent, thoroughly transparent, sound design provides total clarity for the lyrics; he also delivers a broad array of effects, including the ambient sounds of a squash court.

"Homosexuals. Women with children. Short insomniacs. And a teeny-tiny band." The opening lyric of Act II alludes to the fact that there are only four musicians in the pit (although, given Michael Starobin's orchestrations and Vadim Feichtner's musical direction, the score sounds just fine). By the end, however, the meaning of "teeny-tiny band" has been transformed to mean Marvin and his loved ones as they pull together in the face of tragedy. The final tableau is both heartbreaking and something of a revelation: Far from being a period piece, Falsettos now seems predictive. Out of the tragedy of Whizzer, a new kind of family is born, bringing together gays, straights, spouses, lovers, friends, and children -- it's a gesture that points to the world of today, when same-sex marriage is a reality in all 50 states. A period piece? Forget it. The time has never been riper for a revival of this beautiful show. -- David Barbour


(8 November 2016)

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