This is a pedestrian production of a truly wonderful musical. Falsettos boasts a terrific female cast, led by Stephanie J. Block, who is spellbinding as Trina, the mother who must come to grips with her husband leaving her for a younger man. Its score is as vibrant and touching as when first heard, and here it is sung with precision and skill by all. But a slightly puerile set of production values undermines the quality of score, lyrics and book and, on the whole, the males in the company are not as clever as the women in making this revival fresh and shattering. A missed opportunity.
Falsettos is a one of a kind musical of extraordinary grace, power and charm. It deals with difficult themes, particularly broken families and the children in them and the families every one of us makes to help us through life. It does that through a prism of Jewish life, homosexual sensibility and the acrid shadow of grief – and it does it in a spellbinding way, with a marvellous and enchanting score that hits real highs and is unsparing in its honesty about feelings and situation. It might have once been a “gay” musical, and probably needed to be that when first written, but these days it is simply an ode to love in all its forms – sexual, filial and platonic. No musical comes close to its success in that respect.
The score and lyrics for Falsettos are the work of William Finn and the book is by Finn and James Lapine; both men have mined three earlier works, In Trousers, March of the Falsettos and Falsettoland, for the best bits mash-up that is Falsettos. Lapine directs the revival now playing at Broadway’s Walter Kerr Theatre, just as he did the original production in 1992. To be honest, Lapine appears to be the problem with this Falsettos. This seems a pale imitation, a rehash if you like, of the successful original, with new bells and whistles which seem tawdry and inappropriate.
Firstly, David Rockwell’s sets are odd, reminiscent of Laugh-In rather than an attempt to modernise and cocoon the sense and sensibility of score and book. The backdrops, whether they be a cookie cutter New York horizon outline, or pointless shimmering drapes, add nothing really to what may be a story about Jewish Manhattan tunes but which boasts universal themes.
The central item of set is a cube, made of some sort of bouncy material, which is composed of a number of separately shaped pieces which can be separated, assembled and reassembled into a range of functional items – chairs, tables, a bed, a psychiatrist’s couch, a stand at a baseball game, the list goes on. On one level, of course, this is genius as it stands as a metaphor for the lives of the characters being broken down to their rawest parts and then being reassembled to a new whole.
On the other hand, though, it is spoon-feeding a visual allegory to an audience who should be able to join the dots themselves. Book and lyrics are clear enough; the cube may not be odious but nor is it insightful or necessary. This is particularly so given that the key scenes in Whizzer’s hospital room involve items which are not part of the cube. Again, on the surface, the fact that these items intrude on the world of the characters and their cube makes sense, but actually harder truths would have flown from further use of the constituent parts of the cube. Rockwell and Lapine were not courageous enough to make the concept integrated and incisive enough to be brilliant.
Jennifer Caprio provided efficiently interesting period costumes, but, like much of the production, they lack inherent warmth. However, Caprio is a guildmaster in comparison to Jeff Croiter whose lighting design is, uncomfortably and inexplicably, trite and dull. You would expect, and get, better lighting in a primary school concert. A nicely trimmed spotlight is insufficient to redeem entire scenes played a cold lash of ill-judged illumination.
Quite why Lapine thought these key design flaws were permissible for this revival remains a mystery. It is understandable that he might not want to replicate the earlier production exactly, but given his approach to casting and performances, it is hard to know why design was the chosen land for innovation.
For the twenty-first century, a time where gay marriage is (still and sadly) hotly contested, both as an institution and for its supposed detrimental affect on children, and given that both Finn and Lapine are around to collaborate, it seems sad that the opportunity was not taken to revise and rethink aspects of Falsettos – to sharpen its impact and hone its resonance.
There is, for instance, no compelling reason why Whizzer could not be a black man; that simple change would add further complexity to an already charged storyline. It no longer seems necessary for Whizzer to die as a result of AIDS complications; while that was still a powerful, sombre and evocative narrative twist in 1992, it seems less so now. Would it be more or less powerful if Whizzer were taken by cancer or leukaemia or even after some other everyday world event – a hate crime or a foolish combination of recreational drugs? An AIDS related death pins the action to a specific period; story, lyrics and music really do not.
Sure, such revisions would have consequences – a different song for Charlotte perhaps – but so what? It’s not as if this revival is textually reverential to the original anyway. Various notes and words are changed – why not more major changes for a more modern world? Because, in every way, the central themes of Falsettos are just as pertinent in 2016 as they were in 1992 – and small revisions could make it even more astutely observant about the folly of normality and the power of difference.
Trina and Marvin have a son, Jason. Marvin falls in love with Whizzer and leaves his wife, commences cohabiting with Whizzer and tries to keep fathering his child, all the while having therapy. His therapist, Mendel, also treats Trina, and falls for her hard, all the while trying to keep the peace between Trina, Jason and Marvin. Marvin, uncertain of what he has done, uncertain of Whizzer for whom monogamy is an unknown concept, depressed and angry lashes out and comes perilously close to losing everything.
But Jason, although not yet past the age of Bar Mitzvah, contrives to reunite his father and Whizzer because he, of all of his extended family, understands the raw beauty and singular power of love. He finds the right pitch for his voice, and though it might break through grief, Jason’s voice finds its authentic tonality. He and his family will cope with what life throws at them.
That précis may be slightly too glib and slightly too editorialised, but it does seem to be the heart of the piece. You can quibble around the edges, but that is really the gist of it. And it will be immediately obvious from that that Falsettos has two characters who must be blazingly good, overwhelmingly convincing.
Jason and Whizzer.
Falsettos simply can’t work as it should and must without sensational performers in both roles. In this revival, neither character is played correctly and, as a result, everything suffers.
Andrew Rannells plays Whizzer as Andrew Rannells; slick, sassy, pert and slightly fey. Nothing in the text begs for that sort of personality performance. Whizzer needs to be sexually charged, fatally attractive, undeniably appealing, but warm, caring and loving as well as promiscuous, vain and hedonistic. Twice, at key moments, Jason asks for help from Whizzer. It is undeniable that Jason loves Whizzer as much as he loves his mother and father; as much as he comes to love Mendel. Like all children faced with split and repartnered parents, he has two choices – love or rebellion. Most children, especially before they are fifteen, will choose love, just as Jason does.
This is one of the most important and enduring – and, actually, educational – themes of Falsettos. But it can’t work without a Whizzer that everyone, including Trina and Mendel, can love. The audience needs to love Whizzer too, otherwise his death and the power of You Gotta Die Sometime is never fulfilled.
Rannells is not an actor, really. Everything he plays is surface deep. That can work – his performances in The Book of Mormon and Hamilton showed that well enough. But Whizzer is a more complex creation, with the unspoken in his performance being just as critical as the spoken. His physicality with Marvin, the sense of their attraction, his devotion to Jason, his respect for Trina, his outsider bond with Mendel – all of these things were entirely absent from Rannells’ performance. Undoubtedly he sang well, and both The Games I Play and You Gotta Die Sometime were high points – but they did not have the savage undertow they should have had.
This lack of the unspoken about Whizzer left Anthony Rosenthal’s Jason all at sea. It was not possible to comprehend why Jason was attached to Whizzer. It was not Rosenthal’s fault particularly, but it was a near insurmountable problem. The tack here was to make Jason more nerdish and awkwardly rebellious as an almost teenager than to show a thoughtful, ironic and sensitive boy dealing with the hand his father and mother dealt him. The simple truth is that if the adult cast play their roles impeccably, Jason will emerge naturally. Any other route is fraught with peril.
Rosenthal was quirky and engaging, and he sang mostly very well, with excellent diction. He has good comic and dramatic skills – his final moment at Whizzer’s gravestone was profoundly touching.
As the lesbians next door, Charlotte and Cordelia, Stephanie Umoh (stepping in for Tracie Thoms) and Betsy Wolfe were exceptionally good. It’s a pity they were not included in some way in Act One, because their chemistry was strong and they help immeasurably to understand Whizzer’s charms. They enliven Act Two beautifully, showing a relationship that really works and revolves around love and compromise.
Wolfe has a blithely remarkable stage presence that is utterly captivating. She sings with true beauty, a fragile sensuous charm evident always. Umoh is amazing vocally, powerful and richly resonant, with big, belted notes that carve into your consciousness, leaving footprints of mellifluous grandeur. Their work in every ensemble number, but especially in Unlikely Lovers, was first class in every way.
Stephanie J Block, however, steals the honours in this revival. Her Trina is a magnificent concoction of pain, incomprehension, hope and humility. You see, feel, and totally understand Trina’s sometimes extreme reactions. She plays both her incredulity and distress about, first, Marvin’s abandonment and, then, Mendel’s declaration of love, with understated yet frenzied detail. She is joy in motion.
And can she sing. Trina’s Song (featuring her hilarious breakdown in the kitchen) and Holding To The Ground are absolutely the vocal treats of the evening, and Block gives her all in both. She stops the show each time, but for different reasons. Her lasting affection for Marvin, despite his betrayal and abuse, is poignantly portrayed just as there is an infectious hesitant joy in her burgeoning partnership with Mendel. Block gives a bristling, beautiful and bravura turn – one to savour and remember.
Brandon Uranowitz seemed to be struggling with the formidable ghost of Chip Zien, who played Mendel originally. Whether that was Lapine or Uranowitz is hard to tell, but there were sections where the Zien ghost was entirely absent, so one’s money is probably safely on Lapine.
Uranowitz was warm and tender, and occasionally wildly madcap, occasionally suddenly stern. Business with hands was welcome and quirky. This all worked very well and he made the relationships with Block’s Trina and Rosenthal’s Jason sincere and believable. The moment in Jason’s bedside Bar Mitzvah, when all four of the parenting adults are named as his elders rang true. It was a real moment, acutely perceptive to the child’s world view.
As Marvin, Christian Borle brings a welcome, understated normality to proceedings. His Marvin is just a regular guy who finds himself in a marriage with a child when he would rather be in bed with a man he loves. There is little that was tormented about him. To my mind, this is a good thing: it permits Marvin’s choice to be seen as everyday, not unusual, not freaky.
Being gay and being a father should not be considered strange or undesirable by anyone – indeed, one of the most powerful insights offered by Falsettos is that a homosexual with no qualms or fears about his homosexuality could embrace family life with his partner and his partner’s child, and all that comes with that, so willingly. Whizzer’s issues with Marvin are about Marvin, not Jason.
Borle underlines Marvin’s commitment to fatherhood superbly, and in an off-hand way that should speak to everyone. Father To Son is almost unbearably beautiful. Equally, he plays the volatility of his relationships matter-of-factly, making them quite powerful in fresh ways. I Never Wanted To Love You and What Would I Do? provide two sides of the relationship coin, and Borle spins between them effortlessly.
In other respects, Borle is not so successful. You never actually believe Marvin is hungry for Whizzer or bedazzled by him, and the physical aspects of their love affair ring hollow. He sings What More Can I Say? beautifully but it never convinces as a reflection after sex or even of a sexual fascination and commitment that makes him ache. It should.
Still, much of Borle’s Marvin is memorable and skilful. His work in Unlikely Lovers, The Baseball Game and This Had Better Come To A Stop is excellent, showing the many facets of Marvin’s complex normality. Awkward nonsense in March Of The Falsettos lets his clowning side out momentarily to good effect.
Inescapably, part of the issue with Borle’s Marvin is Rannells’ pretty but vacant Whizzer. Romance is a two way street, in life and on stage, and when one partner is not giving, sparks cannot fly.
In the end, the power of the material overcomes the weaknesses in Lapine’s production. A new director, with a fresh perspective and different ideas, is what Falsettos needs. It is both Finn’s masterpiece, a score of splendid originality and melodic power, and a lesson about life and love. A lesson for everyone, everywhere.