My first exposure to “Falsettos” was a national tour in the early 90s and while I enjoyed that production, it didn’t stay with me long after the final curtain. The recent revival, which was screened earlier this week in movie theaters and will be a part of “Live from Lincoln Center” on PBS this fall, is a simple yet highly effective staging of this powerful musical.
“Falsettos” is actually two parts of what was originally a trilogy of plays – “March of the Falsettos” and “Falsettoland” combined into a two-act musical (the original first part, “In Trousers,” is not included). The story centers around Marvin, his ex-wife Trina, his psychiatrist Mendel, his son Jason, his gay lover Whizzer Brown, and his neighbors Cordelia and Dr. Charlotte. Set at the end of the 1970s in New York City, the show explores the complicated dynamics of divorce, child-rearing, homosexuality and the onset of the AIDS crisis. Much of the show is more or less traditional musical comedy, with the plot becoming more serious and gut-wrenching in the latter scenes of the second act.
The cast is outstanding and without a weak link. Christian Borle is a wonderful Marvin and Andrew Rannells’ Whizzer is the perfect yin to Borle’s yang. Anthony Rosenthal makes a fine Jason and has a voice unexpected from someone so young, while Brandon Uranowitz shines as Mendel, the psychiatrist and hopeful suitor of Trina. Betsy Wolfe and Tracie Thoms appear only in the second act as Cordelia and Dr. Charlotte, respectively, the “lesbians next door.” If there is a standout in this stellar cast, it most certainly is Stephanie J. Block as Trina. She’s electrifying throughout but stopped the show (and received applause even at our screening) with her rendition of “I’m Breaking Down.”
The staging is simple but very effective. We begin with a large cube made of what appear to be interlocking puzzle pieces. The stage background is an outline of New York City and there are few other scenic elements. The various pieces of the cube are removed throughout the two acts and used as chairs, tables, doorways, and in the final moments one particular piece is used in a heartbreaking way that I won’t spoil here. These building blocks are a clever metaphor for the themes of the show, with the blocks representing the various people portrayed in the show and their constant re-arranging echoing the frequent changes and challenges in the characters’ lives.
The choice to do minimal staging and sets allows the material, an in particular the actors, to shine. It’s really not more than a step or two above a concert staging, but it works well and anything more would be unnecessary. The cinematic direction is as well done as its stage counterpart, with the camera bringing the audience closer than possible during a live performance. The editing is smooth and not frantic, an unfortunate part of several recent live theatre broadcasts. This capture plays very well on the big screen and I suspect will translate well to television as well.
“Falsettos” is not a spectacle or flashy, there’s no “twist” ending or villain. It’s a relatively simple story about seven people and their lives, flaws, struggles, desires and ultimately their humanity. For Broadway theater fans, this is a rare opportunity to see an outstanding cast take a good show and make it something very special.
****1/2 out of *****
Music and lyrics by William Finn
Book by William Finn and James Lapine
Directed by James Lapine
Presented by Lincoln Center Theater in association with Jujamcyn Theatres and recorded live at the Walter Kerr Theatre
In select movie theaters now for limited showings; coming to PBS this fall
Photo: Anthony Rosenthal as Jason, Andrew Rannells as Whizzer, Betsy Wolfe as Cordelia, Stephanie J. Block as Trina, Tracie Thoms as Dr. Charlotte, Christian Borle as Marvin and Brandon Uranowitz as Mendel in “Falsettos”