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.


  1. In your opinion, is Stephanie J. Block the show's best chance at some Tony recognition?

    1. Given the rave reviews for the show, I'd imagine several people are in good Tony positions. I think Block is most competitive, but I also think there's a lot of competition between now and April and we can't know how things will shake out.

      I expect "Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812" and "Dear Evan Hansen" to both be critical hits, and both feature great leading roles for women. Bette Midler in "Hello, Dolly" seems like a shoe-in for at least a nomination, and "War Paint" will star a duo of proven Tony favorites, Patti LuPone and Christine Ebersole. Laura Osnes will be back in the "Bandstand" in the spring and has proven quite competitive in recent years, and I'd have to imagine the young lead of "Miss Saigon" will at least be part of the conversation.

      All that said, I loved Block in this, and the theatre community loves her. She's in as good a position as she can be. The work speaks for itself.

    2. Cool. I gotta ask you this before I forget: when La La Land hits movie theaters in December, can you post a review of it? I'd be curious to hear your thoughts about it, especially since this will be an original musical never done before.