Falsettos continues at the Walter Kerr Theatre, New York until 8 January.
Star rating: five stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
There’s been a lot of chatter as to how this revival of Falsettos, the Broadway musical that premiered in 1992, would resonate today. Would this once envelope-pushing show, with its in-the-face depiction of gay relationships as well as the terrors of an incipient mysterious disease which was eventually called AIDS, seem rather dated in view of the dramatically changed attitudes about sexuality and the strides made in controlling AIDS.
Well, whatever the resonance, this sterling production delivers, as an old-timey PR person might say, “a terrific night at the theatre”. It makes you laugh a lot, it makes you cry a little. It keeps you constantly involved and even more than a wee bit in awe of the talent on display, from the writers, their creative colleagues and the performers.
Falsettos, with music and lyrics by William Finn and book by Finn and James Lapine, is an amalgam of two one-act Off-Broadway musicals: March of the Falsettos from 1981 and Falsettoland from 1990. The original Broadway run racked up 487 performances after 23 previews.
Set in 1979-81, the show deals with a self-centred, somewhat neurotic but basically good-hearted New Yorker, Marvin, who leaves his wife and 10-year-old son to live with his male lover, while still trying to keep his family network intact.
There’s a lot of reference to psychoanalysis and Judaism (Marvin and most of the other characters are Jewish), and late in the play, the shadow of AIDS darkens the proceedings.
But what Falsettos is ultimately about is human connection – love in its many manifestations – and coming to terms with the hard knocks that life occasionally delivers.
It’s also about being swept up in the richness of Finn’s score for this sung-through musical. His harmonies and tempos add humour and definition to his incisive lyrics. There are intricate multi-part numbers that could grace the best of opera bouffe, and occasionally melodies bloom into breath-taking loveliness
Lapine, who directed the original Broadway production, has returned to the job with his creative juices in full flood. His staging is endlessly inventive, instantly defining the mood of each scene, whether it be a rollicking depiction of the one-time title song, ‘March of the Falsettos’, done in black light with iridescent costumes, or the sudden sobriety of the saddened closing scenes.
He gets a lot of help from Spencer Liff’s exuberant choreography and David Rockwell’s terrifically ingenious set design. As the show begins, the centrestage is inhabited by a huge block, made up of variously configured pieces.
As the show progress, the actors pull the pieces apart and arrange them into all sorts of furniture and other pieces of scenery. It’s meta-theatricality used brilliantly to enhance storytelling.
The story unwinds as a series of set pieces, sometimes evoking a vaudeville mood, sometimes expressionistic drama. The theatrical tone is set in the opening number, ‘Four Jews in a Room Bitching’, in which the characters – Marvin, his lover Whizzer, the psychiatrist Mendel, and Marvin’s son Jason – in biblical beards and costumes cavort through Judaic history, eventually becoming their contemporary selves. They are also joined in the number by Marvin’s ex-wife, Trina, going through her own trauma as a result of Marvin’s leaving.
Most importantly, Lapine has assembled a seven-person cast that could not be bettered. The characters they play seem to have burrowed deep into their own marrow. Even the occasional Broadway belt becomes a cry from the heart rather than just showy Broadway vocalising.
Portraying Marvin is two-time Tony winner Christian Borle. He creates a Marvin whose empathy as well as need for those around him holds our sympathy even as his actions become manic and unthinking.
Andrew Rannells invests Whizzer with an underlying tenderness as well as an easy macho charm, and Stephanie J. Block wonderfully illuminates both the genuine warmth as well as antic despair that makes up Trina.
As Mendel the psychiatrist, Brandon Uranowitz vibrates winningly with New York-style cynicism, while Tracie Thoms and Betsy Wolfe bring delicacy and graceful humour, showing up in Act II as the ‘Lesbians next door’.
And how much can you gush over young Anthony Rosenthal who plays Jason? He more than holds his own – much more – against the Broadway veterans he’s playing with. In scene after scene, he reveals another side of this young tyke: his antagonism against his father, his growing friendship with Whizzer, his haplessness in playing baseball, his deep uncertainty about going through with his bar mitzvah when Whizzer is taken ill.
And all of them bring full value to Finn’s constantly surprising score, melding as one with the four pit musicians, led by music director Vadim Feichtner at the piano, miraculously creating a grand opera richness.
In this brilliant rendering, Falsettos again proves itself to be a show that surely should register with you, whatever your particular range, vocal or otherwise.
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