New York City Theater
Walter Kerr Theater
Sprinkled throughout the affecting, affectionate, absorbing revival of "Falsettos" are jokes about Jewish boys who can't play baseball, bored therapists, barely competent caterers, killer racquet ball games and a disease described as "something bad is happening."
The time is 1979 and 1981; the disease is AIDS.
It all sounds familiar. But the smashing revival of composer / lyricist / co-librettist William Finn's sung-through musical, first seen (and winning two Tonys) in 1992, glosses over societal calamities to close in on the personal. Never forsaking laughter for tears, or vice versa, by the end of this two-act show, it’s hard to hold back feelings for not only the characters but oneself. Under the thoughtful direction of co-librettist James Lapine, the sadness is as overwhelming as the comedy is irrepressible.
Sadness tempered with hope may be particularly significant in our perilous, regressive times. For "Falsettos," admittedly a throwback to a different era, with its well-worn musical style, refuses to give up on family and love. That last word is sung about more than any other, as this rainbow group of homosexuals, bisexuals and heterosexuals reaches compromises that bind them together and, by extension, bind together those willing to escape their comfort zones.
Originally separate shows titled "March of the Falsettos" and "Falsettoland," it included "In Trousers," the first part of the trilogy, from which comes one of the evening's outstanding numbers, "I’m Breaking Down." In the interlocking works, Marvin is divorcing Trina, in order to bed Whizzer, who later breaks up with him. Marvin shares a psychiatrist, Mendel, with both Trina and their 10-year-old son Jason, who turns to the vain but empathetic Whizzer for guidance.
In Act Two, a pair of additional characters appear: Charlotte (a doctor) and Cordelia (a caterer), self-described as "the lesbians from next door." Whizzer returns, avuncular as ever, seeking family ties by playing chess with Jordan and encouraging him to have his Bar Mitzvah. What happens to Whizzer, and the others’ reactions, culminates in the evening’s most gorgeous songs, "Unlikely Lovers" and "What Would I Do?"
It’s the interaction of this cast of seven that lets us into the interior lives of people who seek love in all its permutations. (“My father says that love is the most beautiful thing in the world," declares Jason.) Breaking up, reuniting, trying to be civilized, trying not to be martyrs, the characters react in varied ways to growing up and going on. The Bar Mitzvah, that "today-I-am-a-man" ceremony, becomes a metaphor for maturity.
As the conflicted Marvin, Christian Borle is sensitive and muddled. Tearing himself into multiple bits, desperately wanting to be loved, he inadvertently destroys relationships. Borle doesn't play it easy or seek sympathy; rather, he comes at us with insecurities rampant.
As Whizzer, Andrew Rannells is likewise conflicted, aware of his sexual attractiveness yet injecting the character with a faint acknowledgement that his desirability will fade and he will be without a family of his own. Tracie Thoms as Charlotte and Betsy Wolfe as Cordelia are sweetly appealing, while the talented Anthony Rosenthal's Jason is without the brattiness into which the character, the show’s truth-teller, could descend. Brandon Uranowitz injects Mendel with surprising sexual frustration.
As Trina, Stephanie J. Block has never been better; her funny, neurotic "I'm Breaking Down" stops the show cold. So strong, so real is she that she threatens to become the main character. "I'm tired of happy, frightened men who rule the world," she says." Instead of bemoaning her fate, Block's Trina transcends it.
A kind of Rubik's Cube dominates David Rockwell's set. Its various pieces of furniture fit together like a jigsaw puzzle, representing the fragmented nature of the characters and their relationships. With its soaring score and flawless cast, this heartfelt "Falsettos," optimistic about the ways we can and cannot form partnerships, is timeless.
--David A. Rosenberg
Nov. 14, 2016