Walter Kerr Theatre
219 West 48th St. between Broadway & Eighth Ave.
Tuesday - Sunday through January 8, $42-$149
I saw Falsettos, James Lapine’s new revival of his and William Finn’s beloved musical, during the Broadway Cares / Equity Fights AIDS curtain-call appeal season, when cast members across the Great White Way ask audiences to donate to the nonprofit organization that has been helping those with HIV/AIDS for nearly thirty years. Andrew Rannells made the heartfelt announcement, and people gave money as they left the Walter Kerr Theatre. Although it’s always a poignant moment, it was especially powerful after this show, which came together in the 1980s and 1990s, featuring a heartbreaking plot in which Rannells’s character, Whizzer, contracts a mysterious, deadly disease in 1981. The first act, March of the Falsettos, debuted in 1981 and takes place two years earlier, when the “gay plague” was just beginning; the second act, Falsettoland, premiered in 1990 and is set in 1981. The acts merged into Falsettos in 1992, earning seven Tony nominations and winning two awards, for Best Book and Best Original Score. (There was also an earlier one-act musical about some of the same characters, Trousers, that ran in 1979 and then was revamped in 1985.) So this Lincoln Center revival of Falsettos arrived on Broadway with quite a history; you could feel the excitement before the show started, as the theater was abuzz with friends hugging and chatting so much that the ushers had a hard time convincing everyone to take their seat. At last it got under way, with Marvin (Christian Borle), Whizzer, Jason (Anthony Rosenthal), Mendel (Brandon Uranowitz), and Trina (Stephanie J. Block) singing “Four Jews in a Room Bitching.” And from that moment on, the legend of Falsettos escaped me.
Directed by Lapine (Act One, Finn’s The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee), who wrote the book with composer and lyricist Finn, Falsettos is a groundbreaking show about a new kind of extended, dysfunctional family. Marvin has left his wife, Trina, and their eleven-year-old son, Jason, for his new love, Whizzer, but he still thinks everyone can be together. “I want a tight-knit family / I want a group that harmonizes / I want my wife and kid and friend / To pretend / Time will mend / Our pain,” Marvin sings. Trina has a session with Marvin’s psychiatrist, Mendel, who instantly falls in love with her. “It’s so upsetting when I found / That what’s rectangular is round / I mean, it stinks / I mean, he’s queer / And me, I’m just a freak,” Trina explains in “I’m Breaking Down,” a showstopping number by Block that brings down the house. Two years later, lesbian couple Charlotte (Tracie Thoms) and Cordelia (Betsy Wolfe) have moved in next door and Jason is preparing for his Bar Mitzvah, beset by adolescent worries about girls and more. “Would they come, though, / If they were invited, / And not laugh / At my Hebrew / And not laugh / At my father and his friends,” he opines while displaying poor baseball skills. But when Whizzer gets sick, the characters all take a new look at their lives. “Something bad is happening / Something very bad is happening / Something stinks, something immoral / Something so bad that words have lost their meaning,” Charlotte, a doctor, declares. “Rumors fly and tales abound / Stories echo underground! / Something bad / Is spreading, spreading, spreading / ’Round!”
For most of the show, David Rockwell’s set consists of a gray Rubik’s Cube-like square that the cast can take apart and put back together, creating all kinds of furniture and objects, a clever metaphor for the makeshift family they form. The music was revolutionary for its time, with unexpected starts and stops, rises and falls, and multiple pitch changes as various characters chime in and conversationally sing on top of one another (the complex orchestrations are by Michael Starobin); the lyrics, however, are now dated, and the subplot of Jason’s Bar Mitzvah is an awkward device leading to the teary conclusion. Tony nominee Block (The Mystery of Edwin Drood, 9 to 5: The Musical) is sensational, giving a don’t-miss performance as a strong woman whose life is turned upside down and inside out. Tony nominee Rannells (The Book of Mormon, Girls) is superb as the beautifully sly and sweetly vain Whizzer; together Block and Rannells overwhelm two-time Tony winner Borle (Peter and the Starcatcher, Something Rotten!). Tony nominee Uranowitz (An American in Paris) and Rosenthal (Newsies, A Christmas Story) provide fine support. Falsettos is a uniquely situated coming-of-age story as characters try to find their place in a difficult life, and in an extended family that was unusual for its time. Even if it’s not quite as earth-shaking today, the show’s emotional landscape remains sadly relevant.