By Karen Isaacs
Falsettos which is now being revived on Broadway at the Walter Kerr Theater, is a show that has a devoted cult following. The musical by James Lapine (book) and William Finn (music, lyrics and book) began life as two one-act musicals dealing with the same set of characters: Marvin, Whizzer, Jason, Mendel and Trina.
The first was March of the Falsettos which was set in 1979 and produced in 1981. In 1990, Falsettoland was produced even though it is set in 1981, just two years later.
In 1991, Hartford Stage produced what is now Falsettos by putting the two one-act musicals together. A different production of the “new” show opened on Broadway in 1992.
Falsettos tells the story of Marvin who leaves his wife (Trina) for his younger lover Whizzer; Jason is their early-teen son and Mendel is the psychiatrist that becomes an integral part of the family. Act one the original March of the Falsettos) deals with the adjustments to the new reality of Marvin and Whizzer, Jason, Trina and Mendel.
Act two (Falsettoland) has a totally different sensibility; Trina and Mendel are married, two new characters, the lesbian couple Dr. Charlotte and Cordelia have become friends with them and Marvin and Whizzer have broken up. But Jason still wants Whizzer as part of his life, plus the AIDS epidemic is hitting hard and Whizzer is one of its victims.
I saw the original Hartford Stage production but had not seen the show since. So I was curious if it would hold up in the very different climate of today. HIV-AIDS is less in the news and gay couples and marriage seem almost mainstream.
James Lapine has directed a superb cast, Christian Borle is Marvin with Andrew Rannells as Whizzer, Stephanie J. Block as Trina and Brandon Uranowitz as Mendel.
Of the two halves, the second half surprisingly holds up better than the first half. Perhaps this is because more happens and there is more emotional punch. The first act is almost a sitcom: Marvin’s break up with Trina and the adjustments of all to the new living arrangements. It seemed rather ordinary with the exception Trini’s show stopping number “I’m Having a Breakdown.”
But the second half, which might be expected to seem the most dated, instead felt the most fresh and new.
Director James Lapine has in some cases replicated the original production. The set, by David Rockwell is a series of adult size blocks that the characters rearrange just as they rearrange their lives during the course of the play. The New York skyline is the backdrop. The lighting by Jeff Croiter is excellent.
At first it is hard to like Marvin, played by Christian Borle – he seems self-centered and demanding; as though he doesn’t realize the upheaval he has caused in so many lives. But as time goes on Borle lets us see a man who unsure of his new life and somewhat guilty about it, particularly what it has done to his wife and son. Yet he still remains callous in many ways. Borle does his best to make the character sympathetic but there is only so much that can be done.
Andrew Rannell as Whizzer succeeds better in showing all sides of the character. From the almost stereotypical “hunk” not really interested in monogamy, to the man who befriends Jason and supports him, to the philosophically resigned AIDS victim, Rannells creates a character who grows and matures.
As Trina, Stephanie J. Block gives us a woman who is a survivor. But wouldn’t she be more angry and hurt? It seems as though in the first act she is more harried than in pain over the unexpected demise of her marriage. Certainly Block handles the music excellently; she emphasizes the belting aspects of the role.
Anthony Rosenthal keeps Jason from just a “wise-beyond-his-years” annoying kid into a boy on the brink of manhood.
Although the role is somewhat stereotypical, Brandon Uranowitz imbues Mendel with a distinct personality beyond “the shrink.”
Tracie Thomas and Betsy Wolfe play the lesbian couple – Dr. Charlotte and Cordelia. The roles are minimal in terms of contributing to the action except to show the creation of a new family. I’ve always pondered the significance of Cordelia’s name.
Anyone who has lived through the death of a loved one, will find the second act emotionally draining. Yet others may wonder if it isn’t a little too manipulative of the audience’s feelings.
Falsettos attracts passionate fans and then there are those, myself included, who are less enthralled with it. It’s a well-written show but somehow, it is not a show that I can feel passionate about.
Falsettos is at the Walter Kerr Theatre, 219 W. 48th Street. Tickets are available through Ticketmaster.