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Broadway Reviews


Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - October 27, 2016

Falsettos Music and lyrics by William Finn. Book by William Finn and James Lapine. Directed by James Lapine. Choreography by Spencer Liff. Sets by David Rockwell. Costumes by Jennifer Caprio. Lighting by Jeff Croiter. Sound by Dan Moses Schreier. Music direction by Vadim Feichtner. Orchestrations by Michael Starobin. Cast: Stephanie J. Block, Christian Borle, Andrew Rannells, Anthony Rosenthal, Tracie Thoms, Brandon Uranowitz, Betsy Wolfe.
Theatre: Walter Kerr Theatre, 219 West 48th Street between Broadway & 8th Avenue
Tickets: Ticketmaster

Christian Borle and Andrew Rannells with Anthony Rosenthal,
Betsy Wolfe, Stephanie J. Block, Tracie Thoms,
and Brandon Uranowitz
Photo by Joan Marcus

There are a lot of potential elements to great theatre: superb writing, and outstanding production, sublime acting. But I would argue that one of the chief things that makes a great show—to be confused with a production—is whether it changes as the world around it does. It's easy to gaze back, for example, at quintessentially 1940s musicals like Oklahoma!, Carousel, and Brigadoon, and not see how they're all tightly entwined with the American existential struggle known as World War II. We've moved beyond that, and because the shows are more than good enough, so have they.

This would not seem to be immediately the case with Falsettos, the 1992 musical by William Finn (book and score) and James Lapine (book and direction, then and now) musical that combines the duo's earlier efforts, March of the Falsettos (1981) and Falsettoland (1990), into a single cohesive evening. (With, okay, a drop or two from the 1979 granddaddy of them both, In Trousers.) After all, isn't it so locked in its time period of 1979 to 1981, beginning with gay sexual liberation and ending with the AIDS epidemic at its most destructive, that it couldn't be anything other than a dusty period piece now that AIDS itself is far from a death sentence? And considering that gay marriage is now legal in every state of our Union, wouldn't there be even less for the Lincoln Center Theater revival at the Walter Kerr to say?

Apparently not. Falsettos has cemented its stake for greatness, even for skeptics like me, by proving, with this production, that it has a lot more on its mind and in its heart than just the current political zeitgeist. It remains, at its center, the story of Marvin (here played by Christian Borle), who leaves his wife Trina (Stephanie J. Block) and 11-year-old son Jason (Anthony Rosenthal) for a hot young boy toy named Whizzer (Andrew Rannells), and accidentally falls in love at one of the most dangerous possible times. And the question of what the boundaries for such affection are, and how one copes with its unexpected dissolution, remain as trenchant as ever.

But what struck me this time around was its all-consuming universality. Though it's Jason who literally progresses from childhood to adulthood via his bar mitzvah, it's Marvin who ventures much further down that same road. Beneath the specifics of his choosing to leave one relationship for another only to be forced to leave the second is a severely affecting look at how Marvin stops being a different kind of boy and becomes a genuine man.

His journey, from pursuing his own pleasure at the expense of stability to learning the mature value that may be found in committed partnerships, transcends the surface-level concerns of who's what gender or has what sexual orientation. Those facts give the tale immense color and variety, to be sure, but they now seem so commonplace (in the best sense of the word) that it's now easier than ever to see beneath them to the human struggle the animates Marvin from the bones outward: He needs to understand everyone around him just as much as they need to understand him.

Christian Borle and Andrew Rannells
Photo by Joan Marcus

Borle is giving his best and most intricate performance to date as Marvin, drawing on a quality he very rarely does: understatement. There's not a trace of flamboyance in his performance; this is clearly a man who is still trying to discover exactly who he is, and each line and action Borle puts out—until the very last one—is marked with a conscious restraint. It's only really in "What More Can I Say?", a lovely, tender, post-coital ballad, that this begins to pay off. "If I say I love him / You might think my words come cheap / Let's just say / I'm glad he's mine awake / Asleep," he sings, his faint hint of a smile just barely widening to reveal long-dormant feelings coming once again to life, just in time for his expectations and hopes to be shattered yet again.

Throughout, though, Borle is energized with complexities of arousal, protectiveness, uncertainty, and a million other emotions as Marvin watches the parade of the world fail to stop for him. He's particularly fascinating in exploring an odd emerging rivalry with Mendel (Brandon Uranowitz), the psychiatrist who ends up closer to Trina than Marvin would prefer—it's almost as if the family ties he can't cut are part of what bond him to Whizzer, yet another nuance I'd never noticed. Marvin's paternal instincts develop gradually but handsomely with Jason, and he establishes a comforting cordiality with the two lesbians who live next door in Act II (played by Tracie Thoms and Betsy Wolfe) that highlights the very real but very intangible way a community expands in times of crisis.

There's funny stuff, too, of course, lest you be afraid that Borle, who's made his name primarily in musical comedy (most recently with Something Rotten!, for which he won his second Tony) is getting too serious. But what really matters is that everything is organic, deriving from a single core of personality that has been so intricately carved laughing through tears and sobbing through chuckles are required skills here. Borle's performance is fully integrated and absolutely seamless, the kind of thing we should see from every Broadway performer all the time, but in actuality rarely do.

That includes, sadly, much of what surrounds Borle. No first-class show is immune to the bruises a second-tier production can inflict, and that includes Falsettos. Of the other actors, only Uranowitz comes close to matching Borle as far as injection of detail. He has a thick outer coating of severity that masks a rich warmth within, something he's not able to completely access until—like Marvin—he's left with no other choice. Wolfe and Thomas are delightful as the neighbors, but their roles are comparatively tiny.

Rosenthal, in a much bigger part, reads as too young and insufficiently seasoned to elevate Jason; he's appealing, but at best adequate. Block isn't even that: She's an unparalleled belter in the Golden Age Broadway mode, but her acting is simultaneously overfussy and undercommitted, her inherent plastic stopping her from convincing during what should be her (and the show's) huge comedic calling card, the first-act "I'm Breaking Down." As for Rannells, his singing is technically accomplished but, like everything else about what he does here, one-dimensional; you can get away with a vapid, satiric take in The Book of Mormon (in which Rannells was the original Elder Price), but even a surface-prone beauty like Whizzer must have something detectable going on inside.

Lapine and choreographer Spencer Liff use their performers well, ensuring that the stage is always loaded with just the right amount of motion, and that your focus is just where it needs to be. Jeff Croiter's sensitive lights and Jennifer Caprio's fine, colorful costumes help in this regard, and musical director Vadim Feichtner keeps his "teeny tiny band" cooking through Michael Starobin's excellent orchestrations. But David Rockwell's scenic designs looks cheap and ugly, with a lifeless New York City curtain backdrop and a gray Rubik's Cube-like collection of sofa pieces that everyone keeps trying (and failing) to smush into a recognizable set; this doesn't need to be Camelot visually, but it's not obvious Lapine and Rockwell thought it should be anything at all.

On the macro level, which matters most, that's ridiculous—Finn's sprawling, densely packed, nearly sung-through score leaves no nook uninspected, so it's impossible to miss so much as a glimpse of where he and Lapine want to take us. Through their snapshot of one of recent history's most fraught eras, we see how we all can and must rise above ourselves to be more, to do more, and love more than we may think possible. What once spoke predominantly in one way now speaks in many ways at the same time, not so much educating as reminding us of the myriad reasons the educating we've received is so important. Forget the title: Falsettos might just be the deepest musical in town.

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