Thursday, October 27, 2016

Welcome to Falsettoland

Review: Falsettos

The cast of Falsettos, one of the most hotly anticipated musicals of the fall season.

Alternatively messy and engaging, the first Broadway revival of William Finn and James Lapine's Falsettos highlights the core strengths and weaknesses of the piece in sometimes unexpected ways. Originally premiering on Broadway in 1992, the show is composed of two one act musicals (which debuted Off-Broadway in 1981 and 1990 respectively) that chart the growth of gay protagonist Marvin's unorthodox family over the course of two years. While some of the narrative specifics are deeply tied to the late '70s/early '80s setting, this production thankfully proves the show's core themes of love, family, and identity are universal and still relevant despite the huge advances in gay rights and the advent of marriage equality. Unfortunately, this production also highlights how the William Finn who wrote March of the Falsettos, the basis for Act I, is a far inferior writer to the William Finn who wrote Falsettoland, the basis for Act II.

In Act I, we are introduced to Marvin, who has left his ex-wife Trina and their son Jason to live with his male lover, Whizzer. The breakup of Marvin's traditional family unit has left all three in various states of distress, leading each to seek the help of Mendel, a therapist with questionable professional ethics who ultimately becomes involved with Trina. The second act moves the action forward two years and sees everyone obsessing over the planning of Jason's upcoming bar mitzvah, while also introducing the specter of the AIDS crisis.

Act I proves to be a rather disjointed affair, more of an impressionistic character study than a coherent narrative. The young Finn has yet to refine his signature off-kilter sensibility, which comes across as manic here and lacks the thematic coherence which connects his later flights of fancy. Musically the writing isn't anywhere near as complex or interesting as Finn's later work, and as a result both the performers and director James Lapine (who also wrote the book) seem slightly adrift as they struggle to sell the material. The songs don't build the way you want them to, and Lapine attempts to compensate for this lack of emotional momentum by having the performers constantly rearrange the pieces of David Rockwell's jenga cube of a set. Layer onto this Spencer Liff's awkwardly flailing choreography - which often hinders the performer's ability to enunciate their lyrics - and the first half of Falsettos becomes an exhaustively busy journey with characters that aren't particularly likable or compelling.

Act II is a much richer and more rewarding experience, as it's clear that in the nine years between writing March of the Falsettos and Falsettoland Finn vastly matured as a songwriter and storyteller. Centering the act on Jason's impending bar mitzvah gives Finn and Lapine a stronger foundation to build their characters' quirky behavior around, and Finn becomes much more adept at tempering his characters' off-putting neuroses with humanizing qualities. Even with the introduction of two additional characters - Cordelia and Dr. Charlotte, the "lesbians next door" - everyone feels more nuanced and alive in the second half, and the show does a better job of balancing its wry cynicism with deeply felt emotion. With stronger writing to work with, Lapine and the cast are able to relax; the busy choreography is all but abandoned, and Lapine's staging is less self-consciously showy. The two halves are integrated enough that it would rob Act II of some of its impact to completely throw out Act I, but the jump in quality is pronounced.

The best unifying element of this revival is the strength of its cast, all of whom range from good to great. As Marvin, Christian Borle abandons the scenery chewing that has defined his last two Broadway outings to deliver a more nuanced, believable characterization. Unfortunately, the first half of the show really highlights Marvin's self-serving qualities, something you wish Borle was able to undercut with some tenderness to make him a more likable protagonist. The second act gives Borle a lot more opportunity to show different sides of Marvin, and ultimately your heart breaks with him during the show's final scene (which also features the most striking image of Lapine's staging).

Andrew Rannells is a competent foil as Whizzer, although you wish the show afforded him more of a chance to show off his comedic chops. Brandon Uranowitz brings much appreciated authenticity to his portrayal of Mendel, and young Anthony Rosenthal's innate charm makes the temperamental Jason feel like a real preteen rather than an adult author's caricature of one. Tracie Thoms and Betsy Wolfe are a welcomed presence as the next door neighbors, with Thoms notably in very fine voice throughout.

But the cast's biggest standout is Stephanie J. Block, back on Broadway for the first time since her Tony-nominated turn in The Mystery of Edwin Drood. As Trina, Block blossoms into the most compellingly drawn and engaging character in the show, to the point where she often feels like the lead in what is ostensibly Marvin's show. Block is certainly its emotional center, which makes her effortless delivery of "I'm Breaking Down," one of the most broadly comedic songs in the show, all the more impressive. Block offers a fascinating peak beneath Trina's determinedly perfect facade, showing us a woman not wholly prepared to deal with the curveballs life has given her and yet soldiering on anyway. It is a marvelously accomplished performance which is endlessly watchable and yet never overstated.

Overall, there is both good and bad to be found in Falsettos, and it's unfortunate that the less successful elements are concentrated in the first half. By the end of the night, Falsettos proves to be an engaging and even moving portrait of an imperfect yet loving family, with the talented cast doing much to smooth over the rough patches at the beginning of the show. When the show stops being concerned with novelty and showiness, it truly sings, illustrating how the trials and tribulations of love and family are the same no matter what your sexual orientation.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Old-Fashioned Comfort

Review: Holiday Inn

Corbin Bleu, Lora Lee Gayer, and Bryce Pinkham lead the cast of Holiday Inn at Studio 54. Not clearly pictured: fabulous Easter bonnets!

Holiday Inn is a curious concoction of a show. Pointedly subtitled The New Irving Berlin Musical, this old-fashioned musical comedy has never been seen onstage before but is adapted from a relatively well known 1940s movie musical. That Golden Age Hollywood pedigree proves both a blessing and a hindrance for the show, which is a refreshing throwback to the musicals of yesteryear that also highlights some of the storytelling shortcomings of the era. But those who can look past the plot contrivances and focus on the joyously staged musical numbers will find plenty to love in Roundabout Theatre Company's latest Broadway production, one of their rare forays into the world of "original" musicals.

The titular Holiday Inn is a converted farmhouse that only hosts guests on holidays, giving patrons a one night only musical extravaganza themed to the date's festivities. It is operated by Jim Hardy, a former entertainer and songwriter who initially wanted to give up show business but hatched the idea as a way to pay the bills after a failed attempt at farming. Joining him on this endeavor are his best friend, famed dancer Ted Hanover, and local schoolteacher Linda Mason, who herself once had dreams of performing.

The biggest problem with Holiday Inn's new book by Gordon Greenberg and Chad Hodge is that it takes an inordinately long time to set all this up. The creation of the Holiday Inn feels like the inciting incident of the story, but doesn't occur until at least 45 minutes into the show. The time before then is spent attempting to develop the characters and their backstory, which is admirable and yet misguided for this type of breezy musical comedy. The entertaining yet awkwardly slotted production numbers of the first half hour seem to suggest the bookwriters also don't trust their characters to hold the audience's attention, attempting to keep the energy up with multiple big dance sequences set to Irving Berlin's timeless tunes.

As with many musicals from the 1940s and 50s, the plot of Holiday Inn is secondary to the musical numbers and doesn't hold up to much scrutiny. The tension mostly stems from Jim Hardy's stubborn selfishness, and yet we are obviously meant to empathize with him as the kindhearted everyman. Many character actions are obviously motivated by the need to set up the next musical number, with several secondary characters disappearing and reappearing as needed with little explanation. The show's attempts at more weighty emotional stakes also fall flat, as there is never any real question about how the love triangle between the three leads will turn out. And yet it feels unfair to judge Holiday Inn too harshly for these structural faults, as it has no pretensions of being Shakespeare (or to use a more appropriate musical theatre reference, Sondheim).

In fact, the incredibly engaging cast and cavalcade of top notch production numbers override any narrative misgivings one might have. Bryce Pinkham brings the same easygoing charm to Jim Hardy as he did to the rakish Monty Navarro in the Tony-winning A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder. Corbin Bleu proves to be a consummate song and dance man, endowing Ted Hanover with charisma and star quality to spare. Lora Lee Gayer exhibits a refreshingly modern, self assured take on the classic ingenue archetype, while also managing to sneak in some subtly hilarious bits of sardonic humor. And Megan Lawrence is a reliably hilarious standout as Louise, the inn's caretaker and Jim Hardy's confidante.

But the real stars of Holiday Inn are choreographer Denis Jones' glittery musical numbers, sharply executed with an abundance of wit and charm. Expertly danced by one of the most appealing ensembles on Broadway, Jones' dances cover a wide array of period-appropriate styles and moods, with just enough modern razzle dazzle thrown in to hold the interest of contemporary audiences. Jones makes particularly clever use of the ensemble women during Ted's "You're Easy to Dance With" at the top of Act II, and stages a rousing patriotic spectacle for the inn's Fourth of July spectacular (including a fantastic tap showcase for Bleu). Most impressively, he has created a showstopper in the truest sense of the word for "Shaking the Blues Away," a glorious Christmas-themed extravaganza that sees Lawrence's Louise leading the entire ensemble in an athletic, multi-part tap marathon which culminates in some truly jaw dropping tricks involving a lot of garland. The number brings the house down and practically justifies Holiday Inn's existence on its own.

The show's holiday pastiches are greatly helped by Alejo Vietti's non-stop parade of themed costumes. Whether Vietti has the ensemble decked out in Thanksgiving themed leotards with accompanying turkey tails, red-white-and-blue striped nautical outfits, or the most glorious Easter bonnets seen on Broadway in quite some time, the costumes never look less than stunning. The production is also blessed with one of the most elaborate sets in Roundabout's history courtesy of Anna Louizos, all lovingly lit by Jeff Croiter. And bookwriter Gordon Greenberg pulls double duty as the production's director, keeping everything moving at a pace fast enough that you don't have time to focus on the structural flaws without ever having the show feel rushed.

In a world increasingly rife with political and social turmoil, it's nice to have a lighthearted musical like Holiday Inn around to keep the mood festive. Irving Berlin's timeless melodies reaffirm his position as one of the great American songwriters, and form the backbone to a series of wonderfully entertaining production numbers choreographed by Denis Jones. The hardworking, immensely appealing cast wins you over even when their material is less than stellar, and only the most curmudgeonly on audience members won't find at least something to enjoy. Like most actual holidays, the deeper feelings behind Holiday Inn may get glossed over in favor of festive spectacle, but that's part of the appeal.